Nov 24, 2020 04:29 AM

Short Sellers Target Ping An Fintech Unit After Ant IPO Halt

A pedestrian rides an escalator in front of the Ping An Finance Centre in Shenzhen
A pedestrian rides an escalator in front of the Ping An Finance Centre in Shenzhen

(Bloomberg) — The headwinds that toppled Ant Group Co. Ltd.’s initial public offering (IPO) now threaten a $22 billion dream of China’s Ping An Insurance (Group) Co. to pivot from a finance group to a tech giant and be valued like one.

While Ping An’s Lufax Holding Ltd., which offers wealth management and retail lending services, was able to complete its U.S. IPO days before new Chinese rules torpedoed Ant’s $35 billion sale, the stock has given up early gains and is now a target for short sellers betting the stock’s value will fall. Renewed threats by U.S. regulators to delist Chinese stocks also threaten Ping An’s plans to take more of its in-house startups public.

Ant’s IPO suspension “fundamentally changed the near-term investment appetite” for Chinese fintech stocks, with Lufax as “the community’s No. 1 consensus short,” according to a Nov. 5 report from Procensus, which polled 84 global investors managing $15.3 trillion. In short selling, investors sell borrowed shares, planning to buy replacement stock at a lower price later and pocket the difference.

Short interest, or the number of shares sold short, represented about 34% of Lufax stock outstanding as of Nov. 17, up from just 5% when the Ant deal was pulled, according to data compiled by IHS Markit. Ping An owns about 39% of Lufax after the IPO.

China’s tightening regulation of fintech enterprises and an antitrust crackdown complicate Ping An’s bid to lift its valuation closer to those of tech giants like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. The Shenzhen-based finance company, which gets three-quarters of its revenue from insurance, trades at about 10 times 2019 earnings. Alibaba’s ratio is six times higher.

Ping An has pledged to plow more than $22 billion into research in arenas such as big data and blockchain to make it more “tech” than “fin,” while carving out some of its units through public listings to maximize value.

Ten Startups

The finance group has developed at least 10 startups in recent years after using technology to improve its traditional insurance and banking services. The units, including publicly traded health-care portal Ping An Healthcare & Technology Co. and fintech provider OneConnect Financial Technology Co., are aligned in five groups targeting finance, health, real estate, autos and urban life.

China’s move to place lending limits and boost capital requirements on fintech businesses presents headwinds for the tech units, which also face threats in the U.S. The Securities and Exchange Commission intends to propose a regulation this year that would lead to the delisting of companies that don’t comply with U.S. auditing rules, people familiar with the matter have said.

Lufax plunged 23% Tuesday, paring gains to 8% since its IPO last month. OneConnect fell 3.1%, though it has still doubled this year. Ping An Healthcare was little changed last week in Hong Kong and has gained 78% in 2020.

The rapidly evolving regulatory framework for fintech businesses and other issues like data privacy could delay the IPOs of Ping An’s other units, according to Sanjay Jain, Singapore-based head of financials at Aletheia Capital Ltd.

“Big tech will have to contend with growing regulatory oversight in various aspects,” he said. “It is a global trend and unavoidable.”

Other units that Ping An intends to take public include Ping An Smart City and Ping An HealthKonnect, which provides management tools for hospitals and other health-care businesses.

“Ping An’s pace of spinning off its tech subsidiaries in the past four years has not been as smooth as it originally guided the market, if we look at both the number of IPOs and their valuations,” said Leon Qi, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets.

Investors have yet to fully realize what technology can bring to Ping An, not just the value from IPOs, but synergies with its core business, executives including former Co-CEO Lee Yuan Siong have argued in recent years. Ping An declined to comment for this story.

While management has said it’s not in a hurry to launch IPOs for the tech units, a crackdown on peer-to-peer lending held up the listing of Lufax for a few years. What was once the largest P2P lender morphed into a wealth-management platform as the number of competitors was cut to three from more than 5,000.

“The company might have been ready to list a couple of years ago, but the regulations were still unclear,” Lufax CEO Gregory Dean Gibb said in an interview. Now, “the rules are clear, the requirements are clear.”

Gibb spoke just three days before Jack Ma and other senior executives of Ant were summoned by Chinese regulators, derailing the record IPO and sending shockwaves through financial markets. New regulations to root out anticompetitive practices shaved almost $290 billion off the market value of Chinese tech giants in two days.

Lufax Exposed

While Lufax may not be affected by China’s new rules as much as Ant, it remains “quite exposed” to the risks of regulatory caps on its lending rates, said Kevin Kwek, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission is probing a few companies including Ping An for suspected violations of regulatory requirements on small business financing costs. Ping An Puhui Financing Guarantee Co., part of Lufax’s platform that makes micro loans, bundled Ping An’s insurance products while lending to clients jointly with Industrial Bank Co. and charged high fees, pushing up their costs, according to a Nov. 21 statement on the regulator’s website.

Gibb said Lufax’s offering of larger loans to small businesses by combining its financial and data strength better meets client needs. Its access to Ping An’s distribution network also provides a moat against rival tech giants and banks, he said.

The regulatory tightening is unlikely to slow Ping An’s push to innovate and invest in fintech and healthtech as the company’s roots in the finance sector suggest that regulatory requirements are “in their muscle memory already,” said Bloomberg Intelligence’s Hong Kong-based analyst Steven Lam.

“Valuations can be easily affected by external factors, but the key is whether Ping An can identify good businesses with a sustainable future,” he said.

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