FinTech in China: An Introduction

An introduction to the Who, the Why, and the How of FinTech in China.

Let’s start with some recent facts about China:

  • Large User Base: There are >3.4bn third-party payment accounts in China. For context, Paypal has 227mn users globally (Dec 2017).
  • Explosive growth: Total internet loan balance grew more than 36x from 2013–2016; Total Third-Party Payment Value grew 74x from 2010 to 2016.
  • Most innovative globally: Chinese companies secured 5 of the top 10 slots in the KPMG/H2 ranking of the top fintech firms globally in 2017, absolutely dominating the fintech landscape.
  • Valuations are very high: The largest Chinese FinTech company, Ant Financial, has been valued at more than $100bn, on par with top-tier financial institutions like Goldman Sachs ($94bn market cap). [Though comparing private company valuations with public company market capitalizations are imperfect comparisons]
  • Huge and growing demand for financial services: In 2017, 4 years after creation, the money-market fund Yu’E Bao (the name translates as leftover treasure) by Alibaba, accessed via Alipay, overtook JP Morgan’s US government money market fund to become the world’s biggest money market fund — and growing.
  • Global leader: China accounts for three-quarters of the global market in online lending. (Brookings Institution)
  • Funding: VC investments in China Fintech has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 300% from 2014–2017. In 2016, China overtook the USA as the global leader in fintech VC activities, owning 47% of global fintech investments. (KPMG)

“China’s market is too big, too valuable, and has too much untapped potential for international players to ignore. “
— The Rise of Fintech in China, A Collaborative Report by DBS Bank and EY, November 2016

So…

How did FinTech get so big in China?

What does China Fintech look like?

Who are the key players?

This post aims to provide a simple introduction to these questions.

We will first look at some of the background and drivers of FinTech in China. Then, we will look at some of the key players in China FinTech.

The material is derived from various reports (acknowledged at the end) and also from my personal experience living and working in China from 2014–2016, right during the massive FinTech rise and adoption. Due to the complexity and ever-changing nature of China FinTech, this is meant to be a door-opener to greater discussion and debate, rather than an exhaustive discussion of the various segments.

Here is a graphic overview of China’s FinTech Ecosystem vs US and Japan, markets which we might be more familiar with, to provide some context.

Comparison of the FinTech Ecosystem in China, USA and Japan (Source: Goldman Sachs)

How did FinTech grow so fast and get so big in China?

We can bucket the reasons into three main parts: Regulation, Infrastructure of financial services, and the Widespread usage of E-commerce and social media. Let’s look deeper into each of these three parts.

1. Regulation

At first (2013–2015), regulation of China FinTech players was light-touch, enabling essentially explosive growth:

  • Traditionally, China’s economy has always been centrally-planned, driven by investment and built around large state-owned enterprises (SOE). Naturally, banks and other financial institutions had focused mainly on providing services for these SOEs, underserving SME and retail consumers.
  • As we see in the US, sluggishness of incumbents and failure to cater to the changing needs/certain groups of consumers could create space for disruptors to enter — the same essentially happened in China.
  • From a macro-economy point of view, China needed to transition from an investment-led economy to a consumption-led one. The government was (and is) highly supportive of innovation and threw their weight behind the the development of inclusive finance to drive consumption.

Hence, arguably, it is often said that the fintech space in China was able to flourish due to “regulatory arbitrage”, unique to the country itself.

But unregulated growth led to fraud and increased risks events, especially in internet lending:

  • Oliver Wyman cites independent data estimates that as of May 2017, over 60% of the 5,890 online peer-to-peer platforms that ever existed have ceased operations.
  • There were some high-profile scandal cases. For example, Ezubao (peer-to-peer lending platform), which raised more than RMB 1.5 billion in 1.5 years, proved to be a Ponzi Scheme, making it the biggest-ever financial fraud case in China.

Subsequently, regulation began to evolve and became more sophisticated (2016-Present):

  • 2016: Chinese government laid out a comprehensive policy framework for regulating the internet finance industry across all verticals: lending, insurance, crowdfunding, payments, fund distribution, consumer finance.
  • Mar 2017: Established centralized clearing house (Wanglian) for all third-party payments, enabling regulatory oversight on fund flows, which were previously circumvented by fintech players. What is unique here and very different from most of China’s infrastructure is the involvement of private capital (Ant Financial and Tencent each own 9.61% of Wanglian).
  • May 2017: Central bank set up a fintech committee to act as overall coordinator of all fintech efforts and policies.

2. Infrastructure of financial services, the right confluence of several factors

China was a late mover in terms of digitization and mobile, but leapfrogged:

  • China was still predominantly cash-based even until the early 2000s.
  • In contrast, developed economies like UK, USA, Korea, had mostly already moved from cash to cashless payments (debit cards/credit cards).
  • The confluence of various important trends: Internet taking off, birth of e-commerce, smartphones; happened as China moved towards digital payments.
  • This allowed Chinese consumers to leapfrog directly from cash to digital payments, skipping cards.

The next point is subtle, but very important.

China had LOW credit card penetration but HIGH debit card penetration:

  • China had low credit card penetration (0.3 credit cards/person) but one of the highest debit card penetration in the world (3.6 credit cards/person).
  • Since each digital payment account has to be ultimately linked to a bank card in order to work (Think: your Venmo account), the ready debit card infrastructure enabled rapid fintech expansion.
  • In addition, the low penetration of credit cards meant there was a massive, untapped pool of consumers needing credit, paving the way for fintech in the credit space.
China has low credit card penetration, but one of the highest debit card penetration.

Lack of existing physical payment infrastructure:

  • This is about QR codes. Something which never really took off in the US.
  • In part, this was due to Tencent’s aggressive promotion. But the ease of use, low adoption costs and the lack of existing infrastructure (like POS terminals) especially in brick and mortar shops enabled QR codes to take off in a big way in China.
  • Basically, using a smartphone, a customer can pay a merchant via their digital wallet simply by scanning the merchant’s QR code which could also be on the merchant’s smartphone, for example.
  • As merchants were onboarded rapidly due to low fixed cost of adoption and incentive pricing by Tencent and Alibaba, it became possible to use digital cash in Alipay or Wechat Pay accounts to buy almost anything.
  • Living in Shanghai during2014–2016, I witnessed first-hand this transformation in my everyday life. Once, I lost my debit card and didn’t find out until more than a week later — I simply never needed to use it — something still impossible in Philadelphia.

3. Widespread usage of E-commerce and social media, coupled with Internet boom:

E-commerce, China Style:

  • Dominant domestic online marketplaces for Chinese consumers such as Taobao (Alibaba), Tmall (Alibaba), JD.com were launched just a few years prior to 2000. The mobile and internet boom drove Chinese consumers to begin shopping online, leapfrogging their under-developed traditional offline retail infrastructure.
  • What is crucial to note is that emergence of these e-commerce firms served as a precursor to the rise of the FinTech firms — many of which are their financial subsidiaries focused on payments and third-party remittances.
  • Alipay was launched by Alibaba Group, as an internet payment service to their e-commerce platform. A parallel may be drawn to Ebay and Paypal.
Proliferation of e-commerce in China is a key growth driver of third-party payment. (Source: Goldman Sachs)

Social Interactions and Gamification, China style:

  • WeChat Pay launched in 2013, is owned by Tencent and embedded into its massively popular mobile communication platform, WeChat. Half of WeChat’s 889 million monthly active users spend over an hour on the app every day.
  • WeChat Pay has become a model in the “gamification of finance” via their red packets — users can send each other red packets filled with digital cash and games that allow users to compete fastest-fingers-first to “snatch” a red packet released into a group chat. This feature was launched during Chinese New Year in 2014, went viral and enabled WeChat Pay to grow their user base by 1000-fold in 3 years.
  • Many observers, myself included, view the ingenuity behind the red packets as pure genius: taking a beloved cultural phenomenon, turning it into a game that builds on and fosters social interactions, driving customer acquisition costs down to zero.

Who are the key players? And what does China Fintech look like?

  • Alipay and Tenpay own about 84% of the entire third-party payment market in China. Alipay is the largest (51%), Tenpay (33%) as of 2016.
  • Here is one way to think about it: It is believed that Alipay handles more B2C/consumption-related payment activities (due to their e-commerce groundings), while Tenpay has a larger share of C2C transfers (due to their social nature).
  • In China, due to the “integration” and “ecosystem” mindset of the large players, Payments can be seen as the most important gateway into many other fintech applications, like wealth management, insurance, credit.
  • We also take a look at Lufax, the leading lending platform in China.
  1. Alipay (now under Ant Financial)

Alipay started in 2004, originally as an escrow service provider to Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace.

  • Alipay allows consumers to verify the receipt and quality of goods before releasing money to sellers, which solved the lack of trust for e-commerce in early stage and helped Alibaba to emerge as China’s leading e-commerce platform.
  • Since 2005, Alipay has extended beyond escrow servicing for Alibaba into being a payment method for other functions like online gaming, wealth management, credit, financing.
  • When Ant Financial was established in 2014, Alipay moved under them. As of 2016, there were 520mm active annual users of Alipay.
  • Key merchants: Taobao, Tmall, Ctrip, Weibo, Didi Chuxing, millions of offline merchants (per People.cn), and millions of SMEs in Alibaba’s ecosystem.
Ant Financial’s leading breadth and scale

2. Tenpay (Tencent)

Payment arm of Tencent, encompasses WeChat Pay (launched in 2013, inside WeChat) and QQ Wallet (inside QQ, also a social chat platform that came about before WeChat). As of 2016, there were 600mn monthly active users.

  • The launch of WeChat red packets in 2014 and the use of WeChat Pay in the rise of online ride-hailing (Tencent had backed on of the key companies which subsequently merged to form Didi Chuxing) helped Tenpay gain tremendous momentum and market share from Alipay.
  • Key merchants: JD, Didi Chuxing, Meituan Dianping, Watsons, 7-Eleven, eLong, and more than 700k offline merchants (per “Cash-Free Day” on Aug 8th, 2016).

So what does WeChat Pay and Alipay look like?

Various functionalities readily available on Wechat Pay and Alipay mobile versions

3. Lufax (Shanghai Lujiazui International Financial Asset Exchange, Lu.com)

Founded in September 2011 by Ping An Insurance Group, and started with P2P lending as the only product. It is currently the largest P2P lender and wealth management platform in China with over $24b of loans on its books. Lufax makes money by taking a 4% fee when matching borrowers and investors.

  • More than 31 mm registered users
  • As a division of Ping An (one of China’s largest insurance companies), Lufax uses Ping An’s balance sheet to guarantee all of its loans, a foundation of trust and security that no other Chinese P2P player can claim. Lufax uses a proprietary risk model to determine a borrower’s risk.
  • The company has since branched out of P2P lending, becoming a much broader platform that works together with funds, insurance companies and financial license holders. Currently sells over 4000 products and includes a wealth management business.
  • Has aggressive international expansion plans. Singapore is Lufax’s first overseas market with launch of Lu International, Singapore’s first wealth management platform that provides a 100% mobile, facial recognition account opening and investment process.

The speed and unique ways by which China firms has evolved and innovated has captured the imagination of many of us. As we look to the future, there remains several questions. Can the China FinTech story be replicated elsewhere, but tailored to the local context? What will the face of China FinTech look like as the current disruptors move along the maturity curve?What does truly global competition look like, as the likes of Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu compete against Google, Amazon and Facebook?

The next few years will be truly exciting.


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