By Cate Cadell
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Ant Financial has sweetened its bid for MoneyGram International Inc by over a third, beating a rival offer to gain approval from the U.S. electronic payment firm's board, although it still faces regulatory hurdles.
Ant's [ANTFIN.UL] plans to expand globally with the acquisition of one of the biggest firms in remittances hit a major snag last month when U.S.-based Euronet Worldwide Inc made an unsolicited offer and openly lobbied U.S lawmakers, saying Ant's proposal created a national security risk.
The finance affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd hiked its bid 36 percent to $18 per share in cash, valuing MoneyGram at around $1.2 billion.
The new offer handily beats the $15.20 per share proposed by Euronet and represents a 9 percent premium to MoneyGram's last traded share price on Thursday.
MoneyGram's shares hit a more than three-year high of $17.83 in morning trading on Monday.
Euronet said on Monday that MoneyGram's board rejected its offer on Sunday and went ahead with Ant's revised offer. Euronet said it planned to review the amended merger agreement between MoneyGram and Ant.
MoneyGram's global remittance channels for sending money overseas would help Ant build a cross-border network after a string of recent investments in Asia. But the deal must first clear the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS), which looks at acquisitions for national security risks.
CFIUS has been a stumbling block for several Chinese deals in the United States and a deal with Euronet is likely to be more agreeable to U.S. policymakers amid rising tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade and foreign policy.
Analysts said, however, that while CFIUS could certainly hold up any agreement, it wasn't necessarily a deal-breaker given MoneyGram is likely to push for the deal given the sweetened offer.
"CFIUS may lengthen the process...I don't think CFIUS would be a deal killer" said Jeffrey Sun, Shanghai-based partner with law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.
Euronet has said Chinese ownership could compromise the relationship between law enforcement and MoneyGram when investigating money laundering and "terrorist financing".
Ant has sought to allay those fears, reiterating on Monday that any data collected on MoneyGram users in the U.S. will continue to reside on U.S.-based servers and that MoneyGram will operate as an independent unit.
Ant and MoneyGram said in a joint statement they have made progress towards obtaining regulatory approvals, including winning U.S. antitrust clearance and are confident the deal will close this year.
The news comes one day after sources said China's Anbang Insurance Group will let a plan to acquire U.S. annuities and life insurer Fidelity & Guaranty Life for $1.6 billion lapse, after failing to secure necessary regulatory approvals.
While Anbang's acquisition had received clearance from CFIUS it could not get past some U.S. state regulators.
Other analysts noted that Ant was likely to already have Chinese regulators on-side given the high-profile nature of the deal.
"I assume there are reassurances being given," said Zhi Ying Ng, Singapore-based senior analyst at Forrester.
Dallas-based MoneyGram provides services in 350,000 locations across 200 countries and would be Ant's first major acquisition in the West.
A deal would follow recent Ant investments in payment firms in India, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines. Just last Wednesday, Ant and Indonesia's Elang Mahkota Teknologi (Emtek) agreed to launch a joint venture to roll out mobile payments in Indonesia. [L3N1HK3TX]
Ant, which is planning an IPO, was valued at around $60 billion in mid-2016, according to a source familiar with the matter. It has since had another financing round which raised $3 billion, a separate source has said, although latest valuations were not immediately available.
(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Additional reporting by Miyoung Kim in Singapore, Matt Miller in Beijing and Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)