IN THE STAID world of Chinese banking, it is rare for executives to voice public criticism. So Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, made headlines in 2008 when he bemoaned how hard it was for small businesses to get loans: “If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks.” He has not repeated his warning since then. He has not needed to.
Through Ant Group, which began life as a payments service on Alibaba, Mr Ma’s impact on the Chinese financial system has been profound. Ant has helped establish China as the world leader in digital transactions, given entrepreneurs and consumers far greater access to loans, and changed the way that people manage their money. It is now a giant in its own right. Over the past year it counted more than 1bn active users. Last year it handled 110trn yuan ($16trn) in payments, nearly 25 times more than PayPal, the biggest online payments platform outside China (see chart 1).
An initial public offering (IPO) in the coming weeks will bear testimony to Ant’s growth. It is expected to raise more than $30bn, eclipsing Saudi Aramco’s debut last year as the biggest IPO—a symbol of the world’s transition from a century in which oil was the most valuable resource to an era that prizes data. With a forward price-to-earnings multiple of 40, in line with big global payments companies, Ant could fetch a market capitalisation in excess of $300bn, more than any bank in the world.
A four-legged insect
More important than its size is what Ant represents. It matters globally in a way that no other Chinese financial institution does. China’s banks are huge but inefficient, burdened by state ownership. By contrast foreign financiers look at Ant with curiosity, envy and anxiety. Some hawks in the White House reportedly want to rein in the company or hobble its IPO. Ant is the most integrated fintech platform in the world: think of it as a combination of Apple Pay for offline pay, PayPal for online pay, Venmo for transfers, Mastercard for credit cards, JPMorgan Chase for consumer financing and iShares for investing, with an insurance brokerage thrown in for good measure, all in one mobile app.
Given the abundance of consumer data in China and the relatively lax safeguards around its use, Ant has more to work with than fintech peers elsewhere. More than 3,000 variables have gone into its credit-risk models, and its automated systems decide whether to grant loans within three minutes—a claim that may seem far-fetched but for Alibaba’s proven ability to handle 544,000 orders per second. Ant is, in short, the world’s purest example of the tremendous potential of digital finance. But as it advances further, it may also be an early warning of its limitations.
Start with a deceptively simple question: what is Ant? In its decade as an independent company it has changed names three times—from Alibaba E-Commerce to Ant Small and Micro Financial Services to Ant Group. The company once called itself a fintech leader. Then Mr Ma inverted the term to techfin, in order better to capture its priorities. Such are its efforts to distinguish itself from a purely financial firm that it has asked some brokerages to assign tech analysts to cover it. (Of course, it does not hurt that the valuations for tech stocks are much plumper than for bank stocks.)
Yet there is no doubt that Ant, at its heart, is about finance. The clearest way of understanding its business model is to look at the four sections into which it divides its revenues. The first is payments—how it started and still the foundation of the company. Ant began in 2004 as a solution to a problem. Shoppers and merchants were flocking to Alibaba but lacked a trusted payment option. Alipay was created as an escrow account, transferring money to sellers after buyers had received their products. With the launch of a mobile Alipay app, it moved into the offline world, super-charging its growth in 2011 with the introduction of QR codes for payments. A shop owner needed to show only a QR code print-out to accept money, a big advance for a country previously reliant on cash.
For China as a whole, digital transactions reached 201trn yuan in 2019, up from less than 1trn in 2010. Alipay’s market share has been whittled down by Tencent, which added a payments function to WeChat, China’s dominant messaging app. Both companies earn as little as 0.1% per transaction, less than banks do from debit-card swipes. Given the sheer volume, this still adds up to a lot. Ant generated nearly 52bn yuan of revenues from its payments business last year. But growth is slowing, dropping from 55% of Ant’s revenue in 2017 to 36% in the first half of this year. Instead, the crucial point is that payments are a gateway: how Ant attracts users, understands…