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Abrupt halt of Ant Group's mega-IPO leaves investors guessing

SINGAPORE/LONDON (Reuters) - Investors were left reeling by the suspension of Ant Group’s $37 billion (£28 billion) stock market listing on Tuesday, with many having spent weeks studying the deal and lobbying bankers for shares in what was set to be the world’s biggest initial public offering.

FILE PHOTO: A logo of Ant Group is pictured at the headquarters of the company, an affiliate of Alibaba, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 29, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

Ant halted its planned Shanghai and Hong Kong listings less than 48 hours before it was due to go public following a meeting by its billionaire founder Jack Ma and Chinese financial regulators.

Ant apologised to investors in a stock market filing for “any inconvenience” and said it would follow up with them, but gave scant details on what the problem was aside from calling it a “major event.”

“There has been so much excitement around this IPO and there is clearly deep disappointment from the markets about this unexpected curve ball,” said Victoria Scholar, market analyst at IG.

Investors were wary that regulators’ problem with the deal could spread beyond Ant to other Chinese technology stocks.

Shares in Alibaba BABA.N, the e-commerce giant also founded by Ma, slumped as much as 10% in New York trade while stock of gaming firm Tencent Holdings Ltd 0700.HKNNND.F fell 3.5% in Frankfurt.

“For now, markets will sell off Alibaba and likely Tencent as well as other relevant exposures,” said Dave Wang, a portfolio manager at Nuvest Capital in Singapore.

“If this is an isolated incident to Ant, then the New Economy stocks that have done well so far should be fine ... if not, markets may start to price in uncertainty on tighter regulations on private enterprises and we could see a significant pullback on Chinese growth stocks.”

An investor at a state-backed firm in China, who had a pre-IPO holding in Ant, said the delay had left them questioning whether it would become politically difficult to hold the stock even if the IPO gets back on track.

“Are Jack Ma and Ant running into bigger trouble with the Chinese regulators? Would it be seen as politically incorrect to keep investing in Ant’s IPO if it gets resumed later on,” the investor, who declined to be named, said.

More than $3 trillion just from retail investors had been placed in bids for Ant, a factor some said was likely to have prompted a tougher line from Chinese supervisors.

“It’s quite clear that the magnitude of the oversubscriptions and the influence of Alibaba have become a source of concern for the regulators,” said Justin Tang, head of Asian Research at United First Partners in Singapore.

For William de Gale, cofounder and lead portfolio manager at BlueBox Asset Management, who had opted not to take part in the deal from the get-go, the suspension was vindication for their stance on Chinese financial companies.

“I think this demonstrates why we don’t particularly like these companies - there is always a risk of capricious behaviour by management or regulators, neither of whom are subject to reliable or predictable governance,” he said.

Reporting by Anshuman Daga in Sinagpore, Julie Zhu in Hong Kong, Sinead Cruise in New York and Simon Jessop in London; Writing by Rachel Armstrong; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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