(Reuters) – With more than 730 million monthly users in China on its Alipay app and a growing role linking lenders and borrowers, Ant Group 688688.SS had appeared unstoppable as it marched towards the world’s largest stock market debut this week.

FILE PHOTO: A thermal imaging camera is seen in front of a logo of Ant Group at the headquarters of Ant Group, an affiliate of Alibaba, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 29, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

But these plans came to a juddering halt on Tuesday when the Shanghai stock exchange suspended its $37 billion (£28 billion) IPO, prompting Ant, which was spun out of billionaire Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group, 9988.HK to freeze the Hong Kong leg too.

WHAT IS ANT?

Ant traces its beginnings to Alipay, which was launched by e-commerce giant Alibaba in 2004 as a payment service that aimed to address Chinese buyers and sellers’ concerns about transacting online in the country’s then-nascent e-commerce market.

Alipay now handles more transactions yearly than Mastercard and Visa, mostly in China, but Ant’s portfolio of services has expanded far beyond the lifestyle and payments app.

Ant’s credit businesses originate demand from retail consumers and small businesses and pass that on to banks for underwriting, earning fees from the lenders and putting its own balance sheet at minimum risk.

Ant’s consumer lending balance was 1.7 trillion yuan (£195 billion) at the end of June, or 21% of all short-term consumer loans issued by Chinese deposit-taking financial institutions. But only 2% of the loans it had facilitated were on its balance sheet, its IPO prospectus showed.

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Ant also partners with asset managers, including mutual funds, insurers, banks and securities firms in China to originate investments for Alipay users. Its signature product is Yu’e Bao, which lets people put their spare cash in money-market funds. The first Yu’e Bao fund was once the world’s largest money-market fund.

A robo adviser operated by Ant and Vanguard Group helps investors pick which funds to invest in for a small fee. Ant’s InsureTech business, meanwhile, sells a range of insurance products that cover everything from shipping delays to accidents.

WHAT KIND OF ANT, TECH OR FIN?

Ant has used artificial intelligence and other technologies to facilitate not just payments and loans, but products from insurance to wealth management, making it chiefly a technology vendor for financial institutions.

Ma has called Hangzhou-based Ant a “techfin” rather than a “fintech” firm and it has benefited from the far richer valuations the market affords to tech firms than to financial institutions.

But while Ant has portrayed itself as a technology company, Chinese regulators place it firmly in the financial sector.

Before China’s central bank and regulators met on Monday with Ma and top Ant executives over draft rules for online micro-lending, some analysts had said Ant hoped to escape the closer scrutiny given to financial firms.

WHAT IS IT WORTH?

Ant benefits from the far richer valuations the market affords to tech firms than to financial institutions.

Ant had secured tech-style pricing for its IPO, which valued it at about $315 billion, or more than 31 times its forecast 2021 net profit. The combined market capitalisation of JPMorgan JPM.N, Morgan Stanley MS.N, Citigroup C.N and Goldman Sachs GS.N is $548 billion.

While this valuation is in the same ballpark as Alibaba, which trades at 27.6 times forward earnings and PayPal at a multiple of 45, some investors think Ant should be valued at up to $400 billion or more in the IPO, sources have told Reuters.

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That compares with Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world’s biggest bank by assets, at a multiple of around 6 and reflects the fin-to-tech shift Ant began two or three years ago as Chinese regulators sought to control financial risks.

Last year, Ant made most of its revenue from fees generated by its digital finance technology platform.

Writing by Alexander Smith; editing by Carmel Crimmins

Via Reuters Finance