CHEN Wu frantically clicked the order button on his online brokerage account as the clock struck noon.
Like thousands of individual investors in Hong Kong and across China, the 35-year-old software developer was desperate for a piece of Ant Group Co’s initial public offering (IPO). His brokerage was allowing a small number of clients to supercharge their bets on Ant using 33 times leverage, and the offer was only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Wu had to act fast.
“When it was released at noon, I refreshed my page again and again, clicked and clicked, ” he said on Tuesday after securing a HK$5.7mil (US$735,322) block of Ant shares, equivalent to more than 80% of his existing equity portfolio. “I got it around 12:01pm and the quota ran out within minutes. I was lucky.”
Ant may not be a household name in most of the world, but the Chinese fintech behemoth controlled by Jack Ma has set off an investor frenzy for the history books. Brokers in Hong Kong say the IPO is generating unprecedented client interest, with one firm’s order system briefly shutting down on Tuesday after becoming overwhelmed by subscription requests. Bids for the retail portion of Ant’s concurrent listing in Shanghai totalled a record 19.05 trillion yuan (US$2.8 trillion) on Thursday, exceeding supply by more than 870 times.
The stampede is fuelling predictions of a first-day pop when Ant is due to start trading on Nov 5, even though skeptics warn of risks including the US election, tightening regulations in China and rising Covid-19 infections worldwide.
Whether Ant surges or not, its record-breaking US$35bil IPO represents a major vote of confidence in a company that could end up shaping the future of global finance. It also underscores China Inc’s ability to marshal huge amounts of capital without tapping American markets, a win for Beijing as it tries to reduce its vulnerability to the threat of US financial sanctions.
Ant is no doubt benefiting from the unusually buoyant mood among retail investors globally, but it’s not just the mom-and-pop crowd driving demand. Big-name money managers including Temasek Holdings Pte Ltd, T. Rowe Price Group Inc and UBS Asset Management are also angling for allocations. Institutions and strategic investors may take up about 96% of the offering in Shanghai and 97.5% in Hong Kong, according to Ant’s prospectus, although the figures may change due to clawback and greenshoe provisions.
Retail investors are still likely to have a significant impact once trading begins – particularly in Shanghai where individuals drive the vast majority of daily turnover. About 5.16 million retail accounts subscribed for Ant shares on the city’s Star market, where traders are required to have a minimum 500,000 yuan in their accounts.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, investors are taking advantage of historically low interest rates to amplify their bets with borrowed money. Futu Securities, the brokerage that suffered a brief outage due to a flood of orders on Tuesday, said its margin quota for Ant was used up in about 20 minutes. Banks and brokerages in the city have so far provided about HK$519bil of margin loans to retail punters, according to the Hong Kong Economic Journal.
“There has been unprecedented investor interest, ” said Jasper Chan, assistant manager of corporate finance at Phillip Securities, which allocated all of the HK$20bil it set aside for Ant margin loans on the first day they became available. Chan said demand for the IPO has been more broad-based than usual because of the small minimum lot size of 50 shares, which equates to about HK$4,040.
Yuki Chung, a 30-year-old university teaching assistant in Hong Kong, said she’s planning to bid for HK$500,000 of Ant shares, 90% of which will be funded with borrowed money. “Margin rates offered by banks can be less than 1%, which is definitely very attractive, ” she said. “Everyone is taking part in the IPO, so I feel like I should too. I don’t want to lose out.”
Others are wary of placing too much faith in a rally. Elle Lam, a 28-year-old media professional who has invested in several Hong Kong IPOs this year, plans to order just one 50-share lot of Ant, using the rest of her available cash to bid on the Hong Kong government’s upcoming issuance of inflation-linked bonds.
“People are certainly too hyped up, ” Lam said. “I think Ant’s valuation is too expensive, so the gain on the debut day could be limited.”
The IPO price translates into a multiple of about 36 times estimated 2021 earnings, surpassing average valuations for both global payments companies and large Hong Kong-listed tech stocks, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
Still, rich valuations haven’t been a deterrent for Hong Kong IPOs of late. Bottled water giant Nongfu Spring Co, which debuted in the city last month after receiving orders for 1,148 times the amount of shares it initially set aside for retail investors, is now valued at about 55 times estimated earnings after soaring 65% from its offering price.
“I think Ant can rise 30%-40% in the first day, ” said Wu, the software developer who took on debt to buy shares. “I’m not too worried about the performance.” — Bloomberg
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