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Market Edges Toward Euphoria, Despite Pandemic’s Toll

“It’s not as obvious a bubble as 20 years ago,” said Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida who studies initial public offerings. “But we’re close to bubble territory.”The market appears overheated by another gauge that investors often use to determine how cheap or expensive a stock is: its price relative to the profits it’s expected to make. Currently, the so-called price-to-earnings ratio for S&P 500 companies is above 22, and has been for much of the year. The last time the market was consistently above that level was in 2000.Small Investors Pile InThe appetite …

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‘This Is Insanity’: Start-Ups End Year in a Deal Frenzy

SAN FRANCISCO — Hopin, a virtual events start-up in London, had seven employees and was valued at $38 million at the beginning of the year. Johnny Boufarhat, the company’s chief executive, wasn’t planning on raising more money.But as the pandemic spread and more people held virtual events, Hopin’s business took off. Unsolicited offers from investors started pouring in. “It’s like a drumbeat,” Mr. Boufarhat said. “That’s become the new way for investors to tempt founders.”In June, Hopin raised a fresh $40 million from venture capital firms such as Accel and IVP. Last month, without even building …

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Why China Halted Ant’s I.P.O., Dealing Jack Ma a Blow

This was supposed to be the week that one of China’s biggest tech companies threw the most lucrative coming-out party in history, sending a swaggering message about the country’s economic might during the pandemic.

Instead, China sent a different message: No private business gets to swagger unless the government is on board with it.

Regulators pulled the plug Tuesday on the initial public offering of Ant Group, the internet finance giant, which had been all but ready to press “Go” on its $34 billion stock debut in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The I.P.O. would have brought in more cash than did Saudi Aramco, the state-run oil giant, when it went public last year. And Ant would have raised the money on the opposite side of the planet from New York, which has long been the favored listing destination for Chinese tech groups.

But by firing a last-minute torpedo at Ant and Jack Ma, the company’s controlling shareholder and celebrity founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba, the authorities made clear that international bragging rights mattered less than ensuring private companies know where they stand next to the state.

Ant sits at the intersection of two industries — finance and tech — that are facing intense scrutiny everywhere. American officials are circling the giants of Silicon Valley, plotting a reckoning for the power they wield over commerce and society.

Yet in China, the authorities under Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, have brought a steely, uncompromising edge to their tactics for enforcing the Communist Party’s will.

Globe-straddling conglomerates have been leashed. A tycoon was disappeared into custody. In September, Ren Zhiqiang, a wealthy, politically connected property developer, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he criticized Mr. Xi for the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

After Mr. Xi declared war on food waste this year, the official news media and video platforms turned against streamers who recorded themselves chowing down on extravagant spreads — a niche category of internet fame, but a remunerative one for its stars.

“What happened to Ant reinforces that sense that it’s really essential to show respect for party-state authority,” said Kellee S. Tsai, the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Capitalists have to play by the political rules of the game.”

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Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

For many businesses in China, this has been a year to be thankful — all things considered — for the government. Economic growth is bounding back. The authorities are keeping the virus largely under control.

Ant filed to go public in August, nearly a decade after the company was spun out of Alibaba. Ant’s Alipay app is used by more than 730 million people every month. It has become a major portal for personal credit, loans, investments and insurance in addition to a payment tool. But getting to this point was a long journey for Ant, one with numerous dust-ups with regulators.

More controls were already on the way. China’s banking and insurance regulator discussed new rules for online lenders in September. Tighter supervision of financial holding companies was scheduled to go into effect on Nov. 1.

Late last month, as Ant’s mega I.P.O. was coming together, Mr. Ma made an appearance at a financial conference, the Bund Summit in Shanghai. He spoke after bigwigs including Wang Qishan, China’s vice president, and Yi Gang, the central bank governor.

“Our next speaker needs little introduction,” the host said. “He says he came to the Bund Summit today to throw a bomb.”

A camera catches Mr. Ma standing up from his seat and shrugging, as if caught off guard.

“I’m not throwing any bombs,” he said once he reached the podium. “Who would dare throw a bomb?”

He then proceeded to throw several bombs. He roasted financial regulators for being obsessed with minimizing risk, even though, he said, “there is no innovation in this world without risk.” He accused China’s banks of behaving like “pawnshops” by lending only to those who could put up collateral.

The audience applauded politely as he left the stage. But state-run news outlets criticized his remarks in the days that followed.

After Ant set the listing price for its stock, investors stampeded to place orders. More than five million people applied in Shanghai alone. The total number of shares they wanted to buy was 870 times the number being offered.

But on Monday evening, financial regulators announced that they had summoned Mr. Ma and other company executives for a meeting. In a shock announcement the next night, the Shanghai Stock Exchange called time on the I.P.O.

One wag on social media called Mr. Ma’s remarks in Shanghai “the most expensive speech in history.”

It was not a speech he had been under any obvious obligation to give. Mr. Ma retired from Alibaba last year and has no formal role in Ant’s management. His net worth has been estimated to be more than $50 billion.

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Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

In recent months, his public work has had to do with fighting the pandemic, improving rural education and empowering entrepreneurs in Africa. At the Shanghai summit, he was introduced as a chairman of the U.N. High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and a U.N. Sustainable Development Goals advocate.

By opining on financial regulation, Mr. Ma struck at a sensitive subject. In recent years, China has reined in a proliferation of fly-by-night online loan operations. The country had 5,000 such lenders not long ago, according to regulators. By the end of September, there were only six.

This week, the state news media framed the decision to suspend Ant’s I.P.O. as a prudent one taken to protect investors.

Andrew Collier, the founder and managing director of Orient Capital Research, said he believed that protecting China’s big government-run banks was a factor in the move. Banks pay Ant fees to help them extend credit to customers they might not otherwise serve, but at a cost to their own profitability.

“My personal view is that the banks were looking for an excuse to nip this in the bud and also give them adequate time to try to get their own online operations up to speed,” he said.

Mr. Collier added: “Twenty years ago, when China needed global capital more, and was also much less confident about its own scope in the world,” the leadership “would have been very loath to do this, because it would make them look indecisive.”

Today, China’s leaders care less about how their actions look overseas than about fulfilling domestic priorities. The rupture with the United States on trade, technology and other fronts has led the Communist Party to reaffirm Mr. Xi’s broad mandate to steer China through turbulent times.

“They are trying to figure out a balanced course between opening and maintaining control in this entirely new environment,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “Coming out of Covid, even though China has done well, there’s a lot of unknowns ahead.”

“The sentiment is one of uncertainty, caution,” Mr. Pei said. “When you have Ant, which is truly gigantic, which will allow people to move money around a lot more easily, with very little transparency, really — that can worry the hell out of them.”

On Friday, Ant was in the process of refunding investors who put down money for a piece of the thwarted I.P.O.

Sha Sha, 33, an insurance broker in Hong Kong, borrowed more than $20,000 to get in on the action. She applied to buy 2,500 Hong Kong shares at around $10.30 apiece, but was allotted only 50 shares.

She had been excited to take part in such a historically significant listing. Now she is more circumspect.

“It definitely feels like there are greater uncertainties,” Ms. Sha said. “In half a year, if there are new listing plans, I will be more careful and put more thought into it.”

Cao Li contributed reporting.

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Ant Group’s I.P.O. Is Halted by Shanghai Stock Exchange

Ant Group challenged China’s state-dominated banking system by bringing easy-to-use payments, borrowing and investing to hundreds of millions of smartphones across the country. On Tuesday, Chinese officialdom reminded the company who was really in charge.

In a late-evening announcement that stunned China, the Shanghai Stock Exchange slammed the brakes on Ant’s initial public offering, which was set to be the biggest stock debut in history with investors on multiple continents and at least $34 billion in proceeds.

The stock exchange’s notice to Ant said that the company’s proposed offering might no longer meet the requirements for listing after Chinese regulators had summoned company executives, including Jack Ma, the co-founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba and Ant’s controlling shareholder, for a meeting on Monday.

Neither the regulators nor Ant have said in detail what was discussed at the meeting. But the timing of the conversation, mere days before Ant’s shares were expected to begin trading concurrently in Shanghai and Hong Kong, suggested discord with the company or with Mr. Ma, who spun Ant out of Alibaba in 2011.

Though he is not part of Ant’s management, Mr. Ma has been a spirited champion for the company’s mission of bringing financial services to small businesses and others in China who he says have been ill-served by stodgy, government-run institutions.

Shortly after the Shanghai exchange’s announcement, Ant said it was suspending the Hong Kong leg of its listing as well. The company apologized to investors “for any inconvenience.”

“We will keep in close communications with the Shanghai Stock Exchange and relevant regulators,” the company said, “and wait for their further notice with respect to further developments of our offering and listing process.”

Shares of Alibaba, a major Ant shareholder, fell more than 6 percent on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday morning after news of the delay.

Over the past decade, Ant has transformed the way people in China interact with money. The company’s Alipay app has become an essential payment tool for more than 730 million users, as well as a platform for obtaining small loans and buying insurance and investment products.

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Credit…Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

But competing against China’s politically connected financial institutions always came with risks. Regulators have looked warily upon Ant’s fast growth in certain areas, fearful it might become too big to rescue in the event of a meltdown.

Ant has pivoted in response. Instead of using its own money to extend loans, the company now primarily acts as an agent for banks, introducing them to individual borrowers and small enterprises that they might not otherwise reach. It describes itself as a technology partner to banks, not a competitor or a disrupter.

This business model works just fine for many of Ant’s investors, evidently. The company’s expected market valuation after the dual listing, of more than $310 billion, would make it worth more than many global banks. Mr. Ma, who is already China’s richest man, would become even richer.

Still, Ant’s future remains at the mercy of Chinese regulators, whose views on the melding of tech and finance are still evolving.

“The regulators have long been looking at the risks in this area and how it should be regulated, but it’s all suddenly coming out at this specific time,” said Yu Baicheng, head of the Zero One Research Institute, a think tank in Beijing focused on finance and tech. “It’s definitely a statement of the regulators’ attitude.”

An article on the website of Economic Daily, an official Communist Party newspaper, praised the decision to suspend Ant’s share sale, calling it in the best interest of investors.

“Every market participant must respect and revere the rules — no exceptions,” the article said.

Besides Mr. Ma, the meeting on Monday with the regulatory agencies also included Ant’s executive chairman, Eric Jing, and its chief executive, Simon Hu. “Views regarding the health and stability of the financial sector were exchanged,” Ant said in a statement.

In another sign of the continuing scrutiny, the nation’s banking regulator, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, on Monday issued new draft rules for online microfinance businesses. Among them were higher capital requirements for loans and tighter controls on lending across provincial lines.

The Shanghai exchange’s suspension of the Ant I.P.O. appeared to take note of the draft rules, saying that recent changes in the regulatory environment had affected Ant significantly. Bai Chengyu, an executive at the China Association of Microfinance, said the new rules could cause the entire microfinance industry to shrink.

The famously outspoken Mr. Ma did not ingratiate himself with the authorities when he said, in a recent speech in Shanghai, that financial regulators’ excessive focus on containing risk could stifle innovation.

“We cannot manage an airport the way we managed a train station,” he said. “We cannot use yesterday’s methods to manage the future.”

The head of consumer protection at China’s banking regulator, Guo Wuping, slapped back on Monday, calling out two popular features in Alipay by name in a sharply critical article in 21st Century Business Herald, a government-owned newspaper.

Mr. Guo argued that online finance products were not fundamentally different from traditional ones, and that financial technology companies should therefore be regulated in the same way as established institutions.

Huabei, a credit function in Alipay, is no different from a credit card issued by a bank, Mr. Guo wrote. And Jiebei, an Alipay loan feature, is no different from a bank loan. Ant has called Huabei and Jiebei the most widely used consumer credit products in China.

Loose regulation has allowed financial technology companies to charge higher fees than banks, Mr. Guo wrote. This, he said, “has caused some low-income people and young people to fall into debt traps, ultimately harming consumers’ rights and interests and even endangering families and society.”

Ant declined to comment on Mr. Guo’s article.

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Airbnb Fights Its ‘Party House Problem’

The luxury cabin in Incline Village, Nev., just north of Lake Tahoe, has a hot tub, sauna, pool table, fire pit, two patios and a backyard full of towering pine trees. It sleeps 14, according to its listing on Airbnb. And it has been a nightmare for Sara Schmitz, a retiree who lives next door.

The home is frequently the site of raucous bachelor parties and weddings, Ms. Schmitz said. Recently, a crew of college students stayed there, blowing weed smoke into her house. When she asked them to stop, they threw trash in her yard.

“It’s a constant party house,” said Ms. Schmitz, 57. She has called the police a dozen times about the property and joined the Incline Village STR Advisory Group, an organization that fights short-term rentals — for which the largest source is Airbnb.

What Ms. Schmitz encountered is part of the “party house problem” facing Airbnb. That’s when guests who book its properties hold parties in them, something that appears to be happening more frequently in the coronavirus pandemic, as people look for places to socialize with bars closed and hotels appearing risky. In July, New Jersey police broke up a party at an Airbnb with more than 700 people in attendance.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The party houses pose a risk to Airbnb’s reputation and business as the $18 billion company prepares to go public this year. In many neighborhoods, people have been turned off by the rentals’ noise and annoyances. Complaints about party houses across sites like Airbnb and Vrbo soared 250 percent between July and September compared to last year, according to Host Compliance, which provides local neighborhood hotlines across the United States and Canada.

Worse, the party houses raise safety issues. Between March and October, at least 27 shootings were connected to Airbnb rentals in the United States and Canada, according to a tally of local news reports by Jessica Black, an activist fighting short-term rentals. The tally was verified by The New York Times.

Over the years, Airbnb employees have pushed executives to do more to address the party houses, said six people who worked on safety issues at the company. But they said the start-up largely prioritized growth until a deadly shooting last Halloween at an Airbnb made national headlines. Five people died.

The issues are now fueling Airbnb’s many fights with communities over how to regulate home rentals. Groups like the one in Incline Village are becoming more vocal and are sharing their strategies for fighting short-term rentals. Cities including Chicago, San Diego, Ann Arbor and Atlanta have recently proposed or enacted stricter rules or bans on the properties.

“Airbnb’s long-run viability and profitability is going to have a big question mark” if the party issue is not resolved, said Karen Xie, a professor at the University of Denver who researches the short-term rental industry.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Christopher Nulty, an Airbnb spokesman, said the company is combating the party houses with “robust new policies, products and technologies to stop large gatherings, which far exceeds measures taken by others.” He said Airbnb has made changes even though the moves “knowingly impacted growth and nights booked.”

Airbnb began rolling out new rules against party houses around the same time that it was preparing to file to go public. In July, it said guests under the age of 25 with less than three positive reviews on the site could not book entire homes near where they live. In August, the same month it filed for a public listing, it placed a 16-person cap on reservations, banned parties and sued guests who were responsible for the events.

Last month, it started testing technology to block suspicious last-minute bookings and suspended some party houses from its listings. And ahead of Halloween — the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the Airbnb in Orinda, Calif. — it banned one-night rentals on Halloween.

Some said the measures were too little, too late.

“The damage has really been done to the neighborhoods during that time,” said Austin Mao, an Airbnb host in Las Vegas. He said the costs of repairing damages from parties at his properties, which host as many as 2,000 guests a month, have been tremendous. Neighbors complained so much about parties over the summer that he converted a third of the listings to long-term rentals.

In 2016, Christopher Thorpe, an entrepreneur in Lincoln, Mass., said he faced $28,000 in damages after an Airbnb guest threw an 80-person rave, complete with ticket sales, at his home. Mr. Thorpe later learned that other hosts had reported that guest for parties, but Airbnb had not removed the renter from the platform.

“Airbnb put up as many roadblocks as they could to avoid dealing with this,” Mr. Thorpe said.

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Credit…Kyle Oster/Fox5

Airbnb has long grappled with safety issues, said the six former employees who worked on trust and safety and who asked to remain anonymous.

Two of them said they asked Airbnb to sue people who frequently threw parties at the rentals for the damages, but executives feared that would draw attention to the events. Several also said they pushed to limit or remove the “Instant Book” option, which confirms bookings immediately without requiring approval from the host. But the feature, which was used by almost 70 percent of listings in 2019, boosted convenience and made Airbnb more competitive with hotels. So Airbnb did nothing, they said.

Mr. Nulty said Airbnb promoted Instant Book so hosts could not discriminate against guests by denying some of them a booking, adding that hosts can turn off the feature. He denied that executives had been urged to sue party promoters and said its legal team did not reject proposals because of concerns over public attention.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

In Incline Village, which has a population of around 9,000, the Airbnb party houses have increasingly grated on residents. Shortly after Joe and Edie Farrell, retired physical therapists, moved permanently into their vacation home there last year, the house next door became an Airbnb. Blasting music and drunk people created “10 days of anxiety” around July 4, said Ms. Farrell, 70.

“Airbnb is basically helping people set up a hotel in our neighborhood,” Mr. Farrell, 68, said. “Now you have to worry about your safety and peace and quiet.”

Then came last year’s fatal shooting at the Airbnb in Orinda. A Vice news article that outlined Airbnb’s fraudulent listings and fake host accounts also went viral, raising questions about trust.

In response, Airbnb said it would ban parties thrown by professional organizers that were promoted on social media. It also said it would verify that all seven million of its listings were as advertised by Dec. 15, 2020, and announced a global hotline for neighbors to report parties. And it promoted its head of policy, Margaret Richardson, to be vice president of trust. (She has since left.)

But when the pandemic hit in March, executives scrambled to keep the company afloat. Verification stalled. (Airbnb said 40 percent of listings have “begun the verification process.”) The neighborhood hotline, which was supposed to be available globally, is only accessible in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands.

In May, Airbnb cut a quarter of its staff, including a large chunk of its safety team. In an internal Q. and A. with Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s chief executive, employees protested the layoffs. One said the decision would leave guests without support for weeks, according to a list of the questions viewed by The Times. Another wrote that he would feel unsafe staying in an Airbnb or renting his home on the site because of the lack of a safety plan.

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Credit…Ray Chavez/The Mercury News, via Getty Images

In the first week after the layoffs, safety cases piled up, said former employees. Airbnb asked many of those it had laid off to return temporarily to work through the cases; many of those workers have since remained, said current and former employees. In Dublin, the layoff plans were rescinded altogether, they said. Airbnb said the team that manages user safety is now the size it was before layoffs.

In August, Airbnb introduced more changes to improve safety. It sued a guest who held a party in Sacramento that resulted in three people getting shot. It then sued another guest who hosted a party in Cincinnati, where a property manager was shot in the back while trying to break up the event.

On Oct. 19, the company sued Davante Bell, a party promoter in Los Angeles who threw parties at Airbnb mansions. “Airbnb has suffered and continues to suffer reputational harm and potential liability to third parties as a direct result of Bell’s actions,” the company’s lawsuit said.

Mr. Bell, who declined to comment on Airbnb’s suit, has been selling tickets to a new party called “Nightmare on King Bell Street Halloween Mansion Party” on social media. This week, he continued posting fliers for the event. When asked if the party would be held at an Airbnb, Mr. Bell did not answer.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

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Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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Ant Group Set to Raise $34 Billion in World’s Biggest I.P.O.

Ant Group, the Chinese financial technology titan, is set to raise around $34 billion when its shares begin trading in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the coming weeks, which would make its initial public offering the largest on record.

The company, the parent of the Alipay mobile payment service, priced its shares around $10.30 apiece, according to documents released on Monday by stock exchanges in the two cities. At that price, the company would be worth around $310 billion, a market value comparable to that of JPMorgan Chase and more than that of many other global banks.

The money Ant raises would surpass the $29.4 billion that Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company, Saudi Aramco, raised when it went public last year. Ant’s listing would also be larger than that of its sister company, the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which raised $25 billion when its shares started trading on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014.

For hundreds of millions of people in China, Alipay may as well be a bank. It is their credit card, debit card, mutual fund and even insurance broker — all on a single mobile platform. It is a lender to small businesses, both online and off, that might otherwise be ignored by China’s big state-run banks. Alipay has more than 730 million monthly users, more than twice the population of the United States. By comparison, PayPal has 346 million active accounts.

Like other giant internet companies, Ant says its strength lies in performing a large number of different tasks at once. The more people use Alipay to purchase lattes, for example, the more data it gathers about their spending power. Ant says this information helps it offer loans, investments and insurance policies that suit users’ needs. The data also helps Ant and its partner banks determine who is likely to pay them back.

Yet the melding of finance and tech is attracting regulators’ interest everywhere, and Ant has not been spared the scrutiny. In recent years, China has clamped down hard on fishy online lending and investing schemes. Regulatory pressures have led Ant to temper its ambitions in certain areas since it was spun off from Alibaba in 2011.

In the United States, Trump administration officials have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products, said three people with knowledge of the matter. In 2018, Ant called off a bid to buy MoneyGram, the money transfer company, after it failed to win the approval of American officials.

Today, the company emphasizes that Alipay is merely the front door through which its users gain access to financial services. The lending and investing are still mostly done by established institutions — a message that was crystallized when the company, which used to be called Ant Financial, dropped the second word from its English name this year.

Last year, Ant earned $2.7 billion in profit on $18 billion in revenue. It says it handled $17 trillion in digital payments in mainland China during the 12 months that ended in June.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.