By Shu Zhang and John Ruwitch
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Ant Financial Services Group [ANTFIN.UL], the dominant Chinese fintech company, is shifting its main focus to technology services and away from payments and consumer finance as Beijing's crackdown on financial risk deepens, four sources with knowledge of the matter said.
The company, which is controlled by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, plans to accelerate the shift within the next few years, the sources said. They said the move was propelled, in part, by growing regulatory pressure on Ant's core financial businesses, including payments, micro lending, credit rating and wealth management.
Ant Financial was spun off from Alibaba Group Co Ltd,, which went public in 2014, and has played a major role in shaping the financial technology landscape in China. Its Alipay online payment app is one of the biggest players in an increasingly cashless society.
But in five years, technology services will make up 65 percent of Ant Financial's revenue, compared with an estimated 34 percent in 2017, according to confidential company projections viewed by Reuters. That would involve helping banks and other institutions with services like online risk management and fraud prevention.
Meanwhile, revenue from financial services is projected to shrink to 6 percent from an estimated 11 percent, and the contribution from payments will be reduced to 28 percent from an estimated 54 percent in 2017, the figures show. Overall revenue is projected to grow at 40 percent annually from 2017 to 2021, the figures show. The shift better aligns Ant with the government's strategy for the financial sector while giving it room to grow and innovate, said Zennon Kapron, director at the Shanghai-based fintech consultancy Kapronasia.
"It makes a lot of sense for them to be focusing on the technology side because it plays to their strengths and it also fits within the government's view of the way that the financial industry would develop," he said.
Ant Financial is preparing for long-awaited initial public offerings – expected to be in mainland China and Hong Kong in 2019 and expects to soon close a funding round to raise $10 billion that would give the company a valuation of $150 billion.
The sprawling firm has amassed a range of financial licenses and has become a crucial part of China's massive and vulnerable financial system. That has concerned regulators, who want to make sure that the growing size of Ant and other private financial firms do not present systemic problems to the Chinese economy should they fail, the sources said.
Ant Financial was singled out by the People's Bank of China as the only online finance firm for a trial program to test stricter regulations on financial holding conglomerates, two of the sources said. "As a non-bank, non-state-owned institution in China, it's not allowed to independently grow too big to manage," said one of the sources.
"Every aspect of the technology we have developed will one by one be opened up to current and potential partners," a spokesman for Ant said.
For Ant and its investors, a successful transition is not guaranteed, as the company still has to figure out how to repurpose its advanced technology capabilities - which range from blockchain and artificial intelligence to security and cloud computing – for services tailored for customers like banks, the sources said. AWAY FROM FINANCIAL SERVICES
Ant has been feeling the pressure from regulators on a number of fronts.
Under pressure from the central bank, Ant Financial's subsidiary Sesame Credit stopped issuing individual credit ratings, two of the sources with direct knowledge said. From now on, Sesame Credit will only be used for non-financial purposes, like credit checks for bike rentals and visa approvals, they added. Alipay, meanwhile, has been hit by a central bank decision to raise the reserve funds ratio of such third-party payment firms to 50 percent, two of the sources close to Ant's payment unit said. With the expectation that the ratio will be raised to 100 percent eventually, Alipay could face a further squeeze on profits, they added.
Ant's micro-lending business has also come under pressure amid tighter regulatory control on key funding sources for the company like asset-backed securitization, leading it to look for loan-issuing partnerships with traditional banks, the other two sources said.
One of the sources said the banking regulator keeps tabs on Ant's financial services almost daily at its headquarters in the city of Hangzhou.
In recent weeks, Ant has announced agreements with mid-sized national lenders such as Hua Xia Bank Co, China Everbright Bank and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank to provide them with "technology-driven solutions".
Ant Financial has also set caps for its 1.69 trillion yuan ($263 billion) money market fund Yu'e Bao, the world's largest, to limit the amount users can invest per day and on some withdrawals. The moves followed a regulatory requirement for Ant Financial to control the size of the fund to reduce concentration and liquidity risks, according to one of the sources. ($1 = 6.4190 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting By Shu Zhang in BEIJING and John Ruwitch in SHANGHAI; Editing by Philip McClellan)