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  • COMMENTARY: Ant Financial is a Potential Security Threat

    The Trump administration must decide whether to allow China’s Ant Financial to acquire American financial services company MoneyGram for $880 million.  At the very least, the administration should put the sale on hold until the administration and Congress reorganize the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a process currently underway.  It would take an important step towards updating our definition of security threats.

    The New York Times describes Ant Financial’s purchase as the “first test of the Trump administration’s stance on foreign investment.”  Ant Financial used to be part of the Alibaba empire under the name Alipay, until founder Jack Ma transferred ownership of it to a company that he controlled without the knowledge of Alibaba’s investors, one of which was Yahoo.  In the end, Alipay got renamed Ant Financial, got sued and the Chinese government became one of its largest shareholders.

    China watchers may also know Ant Financial/Alipay from its pioneering role in China’s opaque and poorly regulated Wealth Management Product (WMP) market, now a 26 trillion yuan market held mostly off book.  The last thing the U.S. financial system needs is another participant with a proven track-record of playing fast and loose with rules.

    And as someone whose information was stolen by the Chinese government’s hack of OMB, I am understandably leery of simply opening the door of our financial system to an entity with ties to the Chinese government.

    Ant Financial may well have reformed, but at the very least submit it to CFIUS scrutiny.

    Foreign investments in American companies that raise national security concerns must be approved by CFIUS, which was created 1975. The 16 departments and agencies that comprise CFIUS advise the president when a foreign invest in an American business occurs.

    CFIUS does not impede foreign direct investment (FDI) because it is a predictable, rules-based process, and rarely does it interfere in a transaction.  Last year, based on a CFIUS recommendation, President Obama stopped an overseas purchase of an American company (Aixtron) for only the third time in 25 years.

    The Aixtron purchase raised concerns because the company’s product has military applications.  But, even though Ant Financial does not produce military hardware, it is a potential security threat.  As we are witnessing with Russia currently, information can be weaponized.  We should take rational steps to ensure that we are not providing a hostile foreign power to collect more ammunition.  Furthermore, Ant Financial has a proven track record of fanning financial risks.   After our collective experience in 2008/2009, we should all recognize that a company like that needs thorough examination before we give it access to our financial markets

    Millions of Americans have been victims of the Chinese government’s aggressive stockpiling of information.  Ant Financial, of which the Chinese government owns 15%, could give China a new window into our information. Furthermore, Ant Financial’s history of rule breaking and sowing financial risk is troubling.  Although it does not fit the 1975 definition of security threat, Ant Financial clearly fits the definition in 2017.

    President Trump has pledged to change the way the United States does business around the globe.  Part of that should be to apply commonsense updates to the definition of security, and to use that in conjunction with the existing tools available to him to safeguard our information and financial markets.  In reforming CFIUS, the government is on the right track.  Its first case should be Ant Financial’s MoneyGram buyout.


    Kristofer Harrison

    Kristofer L. Harrison is senior managing director for a macro-economic consultancy. Previously, Mr. Harrison served as an official at both the State and Defense Departments during the George W. Bush Administration.

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