Will Bank Developments In China Lead To A Global Banking Revolution? [Part One]

Chris Skinner

I recently found some exceptional insights into how China is leading the world of banking, as 274516_l_srgb_s_glwe saw the opening of digital banks WeBank and MYBank. If you are unfamiliar with these two bank titans, they both launched this year as offshoots of QQ and WeChat (Tencent) and AliPay and ANT Financial (Alibaba), respectively. This follows a number of notable achievements from both Tencent and Alibaba in recent times, from the trillions of dollars that flowed into Alibaba’s money market fund to the remarkable volume of messages generated by the Red Letter Day promotion.

It leads me to wonder why these developments are so far ahead of Europe and America. Why haven’t Google, Amazon, and Facebook generated their own banks and payment systems? What will happen when they do?

In this first blog, it’s worth giving some of the background to what is happening in Chinese banking and finance. For me, Alibaba is the Amazon of China, whilst Tencent is the Facebook. A third player, Baidu, would be the Google. However, the most intense rivalry exists between Alibaba and Tencent, especially when it comes to money.

For example, the first move to shake up the financial markets with new private players began in June 2013, when Alibaba launched a money market fund called Yu’ebao. At the time Alibaba’s chief executive, Jack Ma, was quoted as saying: “China’s finance industry, especially the banking industry, only serves 20 percent of clients. I see the 80 percent of businesses that have not been served. The financial industry needs disruption. It needs outsiders to come in and transform it.”

Transform it it did, as investors flocked to the new service. Within nine months the total number of investors in the fund topped 81 million people. Compare that with the fact that there were only 77 million active equity trading accounts in the whole country at the time. In other words, within nine months, Alibaba had attracted more people to invest in its fund than all of China’s stock traders.

WeChat followed Alibaba’s lead and launched Licaitong, a fund that also attracted fast take-up, helped somewhat by their promise of high returns. When Alibaba’s fund Yu’ebao launched, it offered 7 percent interest rate returns. As a result, Yu’ebao accumulated $98 billion in assets and 200 million users by the end of July 2015; Licaitong has attracted just over $15 billion.

So these two Internet players – Alibaba and Tencent – are setting the benchmark for innovation in China and, from a financial markets viewpoint, the world.

For example, take payments. Both companies offer a payment service that is wrapped into their chatroom offers. Alibaba offers Alipay, whilst Tencent offers Tenpay as part of WeChat and QQ, their messaging systems.

To promote the use of such payment systems, these two giants offered incentives to send payment messages to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The idea began in 2014, when Tencent promoted its 400 million WeChat users to send each other virtual red envelopes, which would be deposited into their mobile payment accounts.

The gimmick became a big hit, with 40 million virtual envelopes being exchanged, worth a record 400 million yuan ($64 million). Jack Ma of Alibaba called it a “Pearl Harbor moment” for his company, and ramped up the game in 2015 by announcing it would give away more than 600 million yuan ($96 million) to its 190 million users as “lucky money” gifts if they used its red letter messaging system. Tencent responded within hours, saying it would also gift 800 million yuan ($128 million) to users of its virtual red envelopes service, and it blocked Alipay users from their WeChat friends. Tencent’s WeChat won that battle, with over one billion virtual red envelopes sent on February 18, compared with 240 million sent through the Alipay Wallet, and as can be seen, the rivalry between the two firms is intense.

Then China’s regulators offered private companies the opportunity to apply for banking licences last year, resulting in these two key internet players both launching banks in 2015. The two banks are rather different, however. WeBank launched first from Tencent in January 2015 and focuses on microlending due to the restrictions placed upon its bank licence by the regulators. For example, they cannot open branches and are unable to take deposits. After all, they don’t want these banks competing head-to-head with the large state-owned banks, and this is why the new private banks are operating differently at this early stage. Focusing upon the underbanked and unbanked in China seems to be their sweet spot.

For example, Tencent’s WeBank has chosen micro-lending as its first major business area, lending 800 million yuan ($130 million) during June and July 2015. Loans have quite a steep interest rate of 0.05 percent per day, or 18.25 percent per annum. Tencent has so far only offered this lending on its QQ messaging service as it learns the model of banking, but everyone expects this to expand to WeChat soon. Then the market will really ramp up.

Similar to WeBank, MYBank launched by Alibaba in June and also focused upon the small guys. At its launch, Eric Jing, MYBank’s executive chairman, said that “answering to the needs of those who have limited access to financial services in China is our mission,” and that the bank “is here to give affordable loans for small and micro enterprises.” It sounds very similar in strategy to WeBank: providing a focus upon microlending through the Internet.

Although China has opened up its banking sector to the private markets, it has managed to do so in such a way as to avoid any direct threat to the traditional state-owned banking sector. Will that change in the future, and what does all of this mean for users in Europe and America? Read more in Part Two.

About Chris Skinner

Mr. Skinner is chairman of the Financial Services Club, CEO of Balatro Ltd. and comments on the financial markets through his blog the Finanser. He can be reached at Chris.Skinner@BalatroLtd.com