Ma’s MoneyGram deal threatened as lawmakers cite China risks

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s latest U.S. expansion plan is facing rising political obstacles.

On Friday, two members of the House of Representatives urged the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to conduct a “full and thorough” investigation of Ant Financial’s proposed acquisition of MoneyGram International Inc., a money-transfer service.

“The proposal merits careful evaluation as it would provide Chinese access to the U.S. financial infrastructure, a move that would pose significant national security risks if completed,” Congressman Kevin Yoder and Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Formerly a financial-services affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and controlled by Ma, Ant made its bid in January for $880 million, or $13.25 a share. In March, Leawood, Kansas-based rival Euronet Worldwide Inc. came in at $15.20, saying its offer had a better chance at regulatory approval. Dallas-based MoneyGram entered a confidentiality agreement with Euronet in late March to further consider its unsolicited proposal.

Chinese companies have been on an acquisition spree in the U.S. for many years, but the trend has slowed recently in the face of mounting political opposition and national security concerns. In December, German semiconductor maker Aixtron SE’s planned sale to a Chinese-based company fell through after then-President Barack Obama upheld a CFIUS recommendation that the sale should be stopped. Aixtron has a subsidiary in California and it generates about 20 percent of sales in the U.S.

Ant was valued at $75 billion by CLSA Ltd., a brokerage owned by China’s Citic Securities Co., in September. The company has more than 630 million users and provides wealth management, insurance, credit checks and consumer loans.

President Donald Trump has taken a hard stance on China since taking office, increasing the chance Ant Financial’s bid will be closely scrutinized by CFIUS, an inter-agency panel that examines acquisitions of companies by foreign investors. The White House can stop the deal, and Mnuchin is the chairman of the panel. Research firm Beacon Policy Advisors expects the new administration to block ” a wide range” of deals as part of Trump’s America First agenda.

“The real threat is that the Trump administration sees political upside to stopping the deal to show it is tough on China,” wrote Jaret Seiberg, an analyst at Cowen & Co., in a note to investors. “Trump has talked very tough on China, which makes it easier to pressure him to get tough on a Chinese company buying a domestic company.”

Euronet CEO Michael Brown wrote to Mnuchin this week arguing Ant’s offer raises national security concerns because money transmitters collect confidential data on users which the government requires them to retain for several years. Money transmitters also get confidential requests from the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network about transactions that may be connected to terrorism or money laundering.

Congressmen Yoder and Johnson reiterated those concerns in their letter on Friday, pointing out that Ant Financial is partly owned by Chinese state institutions. This could give a foreign government access to critical infrastructure and could be used for “intelligence purposes, location tracking, and identifying vulnerabilities for coercion,” they said.

The total Chinese state-owned or state-affiliated ownership of Ant Financial is just below 15 percent, according to a person familiar with the matter. Those investors are passive and the entities don’t participate in Ant’s management or board, the person said. They asked not to be identified talking about Ant’s ownership structure. Ant Financial said that it volunteered and sought the CFIUS review.

“Ant will continue working with MoneyGram to obtain all required regulatory and shareholder approvals to successfully close the transaction later this year,” the company said in an emailed statement.

The transaction won’t give the Chinese government access to personally identifiable information of American citizens collected by MoneyGram in the U.S., and MoneyGram’s servers and data will stay in the U.S., the person familiar with the matter said. Ant Financial also plans to keep MoneyGram’s headquarters, management team and employees in Dallas.

MoneyGram only collects and transmits a limited amount of personally identifiable information that’s encrypted and stored at its facility in Minneapolis, MoneyGram said. That process would continue under the agreement with Ant Financial to ensure “transactions are fully safeguarded and not misused or accessed by any government — including the Chinese government,” it added.