Ant's Asean ambitions may take backseat to battles at home

But some analysts say China's move to clarify fintech stance will give Ant more room to plan after sorting its compliance issues


SOUTH-east Asia could keenly feel the fallout from the regulatory brakes slammed on Ant Group's US$34 billion initial public offering (IPO), a development which is expected to slow down the fintech giant's global expansion efforts.

The group's portfolio companies in the region include Indonesia's e-wallet Dana, e-commerce site Bukalapak, and, most recently, Wave Money in Myanmar. Its biggest backer Alibaba has invested in e-commerce majors Lazada and Tokopedia and is reportedly eyeing a US$3 billion deal with Grab.

Ant's original strategy was to create a multi-jurisdictional digital wallet through which users and companies could transact with each other from anywhere in the world.

This has already proved extremely challenging in South-east Asia, where the fintech space is crowded and localisation is key, said Zennon Kapron, the director of fintech research and consulting firm Kapronasia.

Now, there will be major distractions too. The sudden suspension of Ant's dual listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong, set to be the world's largest IPO, came amid regulatory concerns over the fintech giant. Ant is now expected to put its global ambitions on hold as it scrambles to get its house in order, observers said.

China has been tightening its control of fintech companies in recent months. On Monday, the central bank and regulators issued draft rules on online micro-lending, which would impose stricter capital requirements and operational rules on some of Ant's consumer credit businesses.

While the specifics are unclear, any funding curbs or higher capital requirements on Ant are likely to land a blow on the company's expansion, investment and acquisition capacity, both domestically and outside of China.

"No degree of success overseas will be able to compensate for the loss in the home market, because the scale is much larger," Bloomberg analyst Ling Vey-Sern told The Business Times. "Ant's priority, first and foremost, is to fix its domestic business in accordance with the regulator's wishes. Overseas expansion will become secondary."

This could limit the support that the group extends to its foreign portfolio companies. Even before the suspension of its IPO, the Alibaba-backed fintech giant had already been cutting funding and staff support to many of the e-wallet firms it had invested in, Reuters reported last month.

Forrester analyst Meng Liu believes that, even as a struggle with regulations deals an immediate impact on expansion plans, the company needs to tap international markets aggressively if it wants to continue on its high-growth trajectory in the next few years.

Back home, besides its archrival Tencent, tech companies such as Meituan and ByteDance are already creeping into the fintech space and could pose serious competition to Ant.