When it comes to financial technology companies, Ant Financial is in it own league. The affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba raised $14 billion in venture capital last year, not far from the $15.9 billion for all fintech investments in the EU and US in the same period. A key question is whether the growth of the world’s most valuable fintech firm is an anomaly or a sign of things to come from China.
Ant Financial accounted for 35% of global venture capital investment in fintech firms last year, according to CB Insights. The Chinese company started in 2004 as Alipay, a payment service for Alibaba. It blew past US-based PayPal in 2013 to become the largest provider of payments via mobile devices. Now, the platform offers a range of services including investing, credit, and insurance.
It will be difficult for another Chinese company to repeat what Ant Financial has done. Its money market fund is among the biggest in the world, and the Alipay service has more than 700 million active users.
Ant Financial grew up in an undeveloped financial system with a regulatory vacuum, at least when compared with the West. That’s beginning to change. As the People’s Bank of China stiffens regulation for systemically important money market funds, Ant Financial’s Tianhong Yu’E Bao fund has shrunk to its smallest in two years (paywall). The country’s securities regulator also imposed new reserve requirements for money market funds in 2017 and put limits on instant redemptions, according to the Financial Times. The company has reportedly shifted its focus from pure finance to technology services.
Even so, there’s no question that big things are brewing in Asia. Not including Ant Financial, the region’s fintech companies raked in $8.6 billion of venture capital investment last year, compared with $12.4 for their counterparts in North America and $3.5 billion in Europe, according to CB Insights. Even after Chinese watchdogs tightened the rules for financial upstarts, some western fintech founders believe the regulations there make it easier for the likes of Ant Financial to quickly amass customers.
CEO Eric Jing says Ant Financial got its name because ants are small and its service was for the “little guys.” But in valuation terms, it’s a giant: the company’s $150 billion valuation is about the same as the combined market capitalization of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs (the stock market values PayPal, with 254 active users, at about $107 billion).
That’s why all financial execs are closely watching Ant Financial’s forays outside its home turf, and eyeing what the firm will do with the money it has raised. There’s still room for growth in its home market, and the company has stakes in burgeoning Asian startups, including Indian payment company Paytm.
Progress may be more difficult in the West—Ant’s takeover of remittance company MoneyGram was blocked by US officials—but the Chinese group has been building QR-code payment infrastructure in Europe and elsewhere. For now, those systems are designed to enable Chinese tourists, who rely on their smartphones for payments, to shop when they’re abroad. Once it brings a critical mass of merchants onboard, Alipay and Ant Financial could one day flip the switch, making a play for non-Chinese customers. That would give a host of big US companies, from Visa to PayPal, a run for their money.
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