TECHNOLOGY

China’s Ant explores ways for Jack Ma to exit

The company hoped Ma's stake, which is worth billions of dollars, could be sold to existing investors

In Summary
  • Ant denied that divestment of Ma's stake was ever under consideration.
  • The move could help draw a line under Beijing’s scrutiny of its business
Alibaba founder Jack Ma during a Public lecture at the University of Nairobi on July 20,2017. PHOTO/ENOS TECHE.
Alibaba founder Jack Ma during a Public lecture at the University of Nairobi on July 20,2017. PHOTO/ENOS TECHE.

Ant Group is exploring options for founder Jack Ma to divest his stake in the financial technology giant and give up control.

This, as meetings with Chinese regulators, signaled to the company that the move could help draw a line under Beijing’s scrutiny of its business, according to a source familiar with regulators’ thinking and two people with close ties to the company.

Reuters is for the first time reporting details of the latest round of meetings and the discussions about the future of Ma’s control of Ant, exercised through a complicated structure of investment vehicles.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that Ma had offered in a November meeting with regulators to hand over parts of Ant to the Chinese government.

Officials from the Central Bank, People’s Bank of China (PBOC), and financial regulator China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) held talks between January and March with Ma and Ant separately, where the possibility of the tycoon’s exit from the company was discussed.

Ant denied that divestment of Ma's stake was ever under consideration. "Divestment of Mr. Ma's stake in Ant Group has never been the subject of discussions with anyone," an Ant spokesman said in a statement.

Reuters could not determine whether Ant and Ma would proceed with a divestment option, and if so, which one.

The company hoped Ma's stake, which is worth billions of dollars, could be sold to existing investors in Ant or its e-commerce affiliate Alibaba Group Holding Ltd without involving any external entity, one of the sources with company ties said.

But the second source also with company connections said that during discussions with regulators, Ma was told that he would not be allowed to sell his stake to any entity or an individual close to him, and would instead have to exit completely.

Another option would be to transfer his stake to a Chinese investor affiliated with the state, the source said.

Any move would need Beijing's approval, both sources with knowledge of the company's thinking said.

The accounts provided by all three sources are consistent in terms of the timeline for how discussions have evolved over the past few months.

On the company side, one source said Ma met regulators more than once before the Chinese New Year, which was in early February. And the second source said Ant started working on options for Ma's possible exit about a couple of months ago.

The source familiar with the regulators' thinking said Ant had told officials during a meeting sometime before mid-March that it was working on options.