Ant Group logo is pictured at the Shanghai office of Alipay, owned by Ant Group which is an affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, in ShanghaiMoreBy Cheng Leng and Julie ZhuBEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) - As Ant Group was working in August towards its giant IPO, at least two smaller Chinese banks with existing ties to the fintech firm decided to stop sourcing new consumer loans from it, people with knowledge of the matter said.Their moves came after regulators scrutinised banks that used Ant's technology platform excessively for underwriting consumer loans at a time when concerns about defaults and lenders' asset quality grew in a pandemic-hit economy, said the people.The sharper regulatory focus over Ant's cash cow and rapidly growing consumer lending business to curb financial sector risk has emerged as a key concern for potential investors ahead of its likely $35 billion float, the world's largest.For its lending business, Ant originates demand from retail consumers and small businesses and passes that on to about 100 banks for underwriting, earning fees from the lenders and putting its own balance sheet at minimum risk.Ant's consumer lending balance was 1.7 trillion yuan ($254 billion) as of end-June this year, or 21% of all short-term consumer loans issued by Chinese deposit-taking financial institutions."The 'catch me if you can' type of game between regulators and Ant will always be there," said Dong Ximiao, chief analyst at the Zhongguancun Internet Finance Institute, a think tank backed by Beijing's Haidian district government."But the trend of tight regulations won't go backwards for sure," Dong said. "Regulators are now well aware of how harmful it would be to set free a beast like Ant."With its unique business model and the absence of peers in China and elsewhere, analysts say Ant has mainly thrived as a technology platform away from banking sector's regulations despite its bouquet of financial offerings.Even in the run up to the IPO the company tried to burnish its tech credentials - it changed its name to Ant Group from Ant Financial - and is pushing brokerages to get tech analysts to cover the firm,
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