By Samuel Shen and Scott Murdoch
SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) - A growing number of Chinese tech start-ups are cancelling plans to list on Nasdaq-style markets at home with some eyeing Hong Kong share sales instead, as regulators tighten scrutiny of IPO applicants after the halting of Ant Group's $37 billion float.
Over 100 companies have voluntarily withdrawn applications to list on Shanghai's STAR Market and Shenzhen's ChiNext since Ant's termination of its initial public offering (IPO) in November, according to Reuters review of exchange filings.
The unprecedented withdrawals come against the backdrop of sharply intensified grilling of listing prospects by regulators, leading to IPO delays, outright rejection or even penalties, say bankers and company executives.
The scramble to withdraw IPO applications raises questions over the quality of China's IPOs and robustness of due diligence done by their underwriters.
The trend, if it continues, would threaten China's ambition to compete with global listing venues such as Hong Kong and New York at a time when Beijing is also considering establishing a new bourse to attract overseas-listed firms.
China launched STAR nearly two years ago with a U.S.-style registration and disclosure-based IPO regime in a bid to dissuade its tech start-ups from tapping offshore bourses, and to fast-track listings. The reform extended to ChiNext last year.
But Ant's IPO, which was suspended after regulators expressed concerns about some parts of its businesses, shifted the watchdog's attention towards risk control, said a banker with direct knowledge of regulators' thinking.
"Regulators are demanding more stringent due diligence from underwriters," said the banker, who declined to be identified.
Sponsors, or the lead IPO underwriters, are withdrawing some applications for fear of being punished, he said, as "no project is impeccable."
The STAR Market became the world's fourth most popular listing venue in 2020, with IPOs raising $20 billion. Its ranking fell to the 7th in the first quarter, according to Refinitiv data.
"There's a tech bubble in China," said Yiming Feng, partner at Atom Venture Capital. "It's time for a clean-up."
The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), STAR and ChiNext didn't respond to Reuters request for comment.
DaoCloud, a Shanghai-based cloud computing start-up, had planned a STAR IPO this year, but is now considering a Hong Kong listing instead, deterred by the likelihood of approval delays.
IPO applicants "now face a lot of regulatory uncertainty," said Roby Chen, DaoClould's founder. "So we need a plan B."
For others with no immediate plans for an overseas listing, the priority is to seek fresh private funding.
Several artificial intelligence unicorns, start-ups valued at $1 billion or above, "have come to me with their business plans, and seek financing," said Abraham Zhang, chairman of Shenzhen-based venture capital firm China Europe Capital.
Loss-making tech unicorns that have shelved their listing plans include Yitu Ltd, Unisound AI Technology Co and Shenzhen Royole Technologies Co, according to exchange data.
Ming Liao, founding partner of Beijing-based Prospect Avenue Capital, said many Chinese start-ups now face a bumpy road towards IPOs, with some of them struggling to "demonstrate their potential for sustainable growth."
CSRC Chairman Yi Huiman last month urged underwriters to tighten scrutiny of IPO candidates, vowing to punish those trying to bring "sick" firms to the market.
Bankers say bourses are now launching on-site inspections, poring over IPO filings and bombarding sponsors with loads of questions - practices that were not common earlier.
In addition, senior executives of a start-up must disclose their personal bank accounts and explain large transactions.
As a result, the average waiting time has blown out from six months to 12, creating a backlog of over 100 companies waiting to list on STAR, said a banker.
The new IPO system lured many companies seeking a swift listing, and now, "regulators are using relentless attention to details and on-site inspections to intimidate them away," said an investment banker who has several IPO deals stuck.
"It defies the purpose of the IPO reform, which is to give the market the power to evaluate companies."
(Reporting by Samuel Shen and Scott Murdoch; Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Kim Coghill)