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China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B

Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its interent economy. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba, weeks after the authorities called off the initial public offering of Ant Group, the financial affiliate of Alibaba.

SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its Chinese merchants to sell exclusively on one e-commerce platform instead of letting them choose freely among different services, such as Pinduoduo and JD.com. Vendors are often pressured to side with Alibaba to take advantage of its enormous user base.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with various fines for violating anti-competition practices, for instance, failing to clear past acquisitions with regulators. The meager sums of these penalties were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that China’s antitrust authorities are getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If approved, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

China lays out ‘rectification’ plan for Jack Ma’s fintech empire Ant

What a whirlwind holiday for Jack Ma and his fintech empire. The People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, summoned Ant Group for regulatory talks on December 26th, announcing a sweeping plan for the fintech firm to “rectify” its regulatory violations.

The meeting came less than two months after China’s financial authorities abruptly halted what could have been a record-setting initial public offering of Ant over the firm’s regulatory compliance issues. The company, which started out as a payments processor for Alibaba’s online marketplaces and spun out in 2011, lacked a sound governance structure, defied regulatory requirements, illegally engaged in arbitrage, excluded competitors using its market advantage and hurt consumer rights, said the central bank.

Concurrently, Jack Ma’s e-commerce giant Alibaba is under investigation by China’s top market regulator over alleged monopolistic behavior.

The banking authority laid out a five-point compliance agenda for Ant, which is controlled by Alibaba’s billionaire founder Jack Ma. The fintech company should return to its roots in payments and bring more transparency to transactions; obtain the necessary licenses for its credit businesses and protect user data privacy; establish a financial holding company and ensure it holds sufficient capital; revamp its credit, insurance, wealth management and other financial businesses according to the law; and step up compliance for its securities business.

Following the closed-door meeting, Ant said it has established an internal “rectification workforce” to work on all the regulatory requirements.

The shakeup could take months to carry out and likely dent Ant’s valuation, which surpassed $300 billion around the time it was scheduled to go public. For instance, the government recently announced plans to raise the bar for third-party technology platforms like Ant to provide loans to consumers, a segment that made up about 35% of Ant’s annual revenue. The proposed change, which is part of Beijing’s effort to control the country’s debt risks, also sets a new requirement for online microlenders to provide at least 30% of the loan they fund jointly with banks, which could put pressure on Ant’s cash flow.

Some remain optimistic about Ant’s future. “[Ant] creates a lot of value. If you take the long view, the temporary suspension of its IPO has a limited impact on its business,” Bill Deng, founder of cross-border payments operator XTransfer and a former executive at Ant, said to TechCrunch.

“From the regulator’s standpoint, [Ant’s] lending size is getting so big that it has extended beyond the old regulatory perimeters. To some extent, it has also encroached on the core interests of traditional financial players,” he added.

The clampdown on Ant has no doubt sent a warning to the rest of the industry. In a surprising move, JD.com’s fintech unit, a challenger to Ant, appointed its former chief compliance officer to steer the fintech firm as the new chief executive officer.

Tencent also has a sprawling fintech business, but it may not receive the same level of scrutiny because the social and gaming giant is “not nearly as aggressive” as Ant in its fintech push, said a partner of Tencent’s overseas fintech business who asked not to be named.

Jack Ma’s fintech giant tops 1.3 billion users globally

The speculation that Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Ant Group will go public has been swirling around for years. New details came to light recently. Reuters reported last week that the fintech giant could float as soon as this year in an initial public offering that values it at $200 billion. As a private firm, details of the payments and financial services firm remain sparse, but a new filing by Alibaba, which holds a 33% stake in Ant, provides a rare glimpse into its performance.

Alipay, the brand of Ant’s consumer finance app, claims to earmark 1.3 billion annual active users as of March. The majority of its users came from China, while the rest were brought by its nine e-wallet partners in India, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

In recent years Ant has been striving to scale back its reliance on in-house financial products in response to Beijing’s tightening grip on China’s fledgling fintech industry. Tencent, Alibaba’s nemesis, is considered a lot more reserved in the financial space but its WeChat Pay app has been slowly eating away at Alipay’s share of the payments market.

In a symbolic move in May, the Alibaba affiliate changed its name from Ant Financial to Ant Group. Even prior to that, Ant had been actively publicizing itself as a “technology” company that offers payments gateways and sells digital infrastructure to banks, insurance groups, and other traditional financial institutions — rather than being a direct competitor to them. On the Alipay app, users can browse and access a raft of third-party financial services including wealth management, microloans, and insurance.

As of March, Ant’s wealth management unit facilitated 4 trillion yuan ($570 billion) of assets under management for its partners offering money market funds, fixed income products, and equity investment services. During the same period, total insurance premiums facilitated by Ant more than doubled from the year before.

In June, Ant’s new boss Hu Xiaoming set the goal for the firm to generate 80% of total revenues from technology service fees, up from about 50% in 2019. He anticipated the monetary contribution of Ant’s own proprietary financial services to shrink as a result.

Ant grew out of Alipay, the payments service launched by Alibaba as an escrow service to ensure trust between e-commerce buyers and sellers. In 2011, Alibaba spun off Ant, allegedly to comply with local regulations governing third-party payments services. Ant has since taken on several rounds of equity financing. Today, Alibaba founder Jack Ma still controls a majority of Ant’s voting interests.