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Jack Ma's Ant IPO lures US$3t of bids in retail frenzy

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The biggest initial public offering of all time has unleashed an investor frenzy for the record books.

[SHANGHAI] The biggest initial public offering of all time has unleashed an investor frenzy for the record books.

Individual investors in Hong Kong and Shanghai placed orders worth at least US$3 trillion for shares of Jack Ma's Ant Group, enough money to buy JPMorgan 10 times over. Bidding was so intense in Hong Kong that one brokerage's platform briefly shut down after becoming overwhelmed by orders. Demand for the retail portion in Shanghai exceeded initial supply by more than 870 times.

The stampede is fueling predictions of a first-day pop when Ant is due to start trading on Nov 5, even as skeptics warn of risks including the US election, tightening regulations in China and rising Covid-19 infections worldwide.

Whether Ant surges or not, the Chinese fintech behemoth's US$35 billion-plus IPO represents a major vote of confidence in a company that could end up shaping the future of global finance. It also underscores China'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.

Chen Wu, a 35-year-old software developer, was among those scrambling for a piece of Ant's offering this week. His brokerage allowed a small number of clients to supercharge their bets using 33 times leverage, handing out allocations on a first-come, first-served basis.

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"When it was released at noon, I refreshed my page again and again, clicked and clicked," Mr Wu said on Tuesday after securing a HK$5.7 million (S$1 million) block of Ant shares, equivalent to more than 80 per cent of his existing equity portfolio. "I got it around 12.01 pm and the quota ran out within minutes. I was lucky." 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, T. Rowe Price Group and UBS Asset Management are also angling for allocations. Institutions and strategic investors may take up about 96 per cent of the offering in Shanghai and 97.5 per cent 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 placed a record 19.05 trillion yuan (S$3.88 trillion) of orders for Ant shares on the city's Star market, where traders are required to have a minimum 500,000 yuan in their accounts.

In Hong Kong, the retail portion attracted more than HK$1.3 trillion of orders as of 11 am local time on Friday, or 394 times the initial supply, the South China Morning Post reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Many investors in the city took 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 have so far provided about HK$519 billion 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$20 billion it set aside for Ant margin loans on the first day they became available. Mr 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 per cent of which will be funded with borrowed money. "Margin rates offered by banks can be less than 1 per cent, 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," Ms 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, 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 per cent-40 per cent in the first day," said Mr Wu, the software developer who took on debt to buy shares. "I'm not too worried about the performance."

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