On the march 在行进中

The blockbuster listing of Ant Group shows how fintech is revolutionising finance


IN 1300 OR so Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, introduced Europeans to a monetary marvel witnessed in China. The emperor, he wrote, “causes the bark of trees, made into something like paper, to pass for money all over his country”. Eventually the West also adopted paper money, some six centuries after China invented it. More recent foreign travellers to China have come back agog at the next big step for money: the total disappearance of paper, replaced by pixels on phone screens.
China’s pre-eminence in digital money is likely to be on display in the next few weeks with the monster listing of Ant Group, its largest fintech firm, in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Measured by cash raised, it will probably be the biggest initial public offering in history, beating Saudi Aramco’s last year. Once listed, Ant, which was formed in 2004, could have a similar value to JPMorgan Chase, the world’s biggest bank, which traces its roots to 1799. Ant’s rise worries hawks in the White House and enthralls global investors. It portends a bigger transformation of how the financial system works—not just in China but around the world.
Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s boss, and others have kept a wary and admiring eye on Ant for years. Spun off from Alibaba, an e-commerce firm, it has over 1bn users, mostly in China, and its payments network carried $16trn of transactions last year, connecting 80m merchants. Payments are just the appetiser. Users can borrow money, choose from 6,000 investment products, and buy health insurance. Imagine if main-street banks, Wall Street’s brokers, Boston’s asset managers and Connecticut’s insurers were all shrunk to fit into a single app designed in Silicon Valley that almost everyone used. Other Chinese firms, notably Tencent, which owns the WeChat app, also operate cutting-edge fintech arms.
多年来,摩根大通的老板杰米·戴蒙(Jamie Dimon)等人对蚂蚁一直既警惕又艳羡。蚂蚁剥离自电子商务公司阿里巴巴,目前用户超过10亿,主要在中国国内。它的支付网络去年的交易额达16万亿美元,覆盖8000万商户。支付业务只是它的开胃菜。其用户还可申请贷款、投资理财(有6000种投资产品供选择)和购买医疗保险。想象一下,这等同于把美国各家零售银行、华尔街的券商、波士顿的资产管理公司和康涅狄格州的保险公司糅合到一款由硅谷设计、几乎所有人都在用的应用里。其他中国公司,尤其是微信的母公司腾讯,也拥有走在最前沿的金融科技业务。
China is not alone. The pandemic has supercharged activity elsewhere. Alongside the surge in global e-commerce and remote working there has been an accompanying boom in digital payments, which have jumped by 52% at Venmo, an American network, compared with last year, and by 142% at Mercado Pago, a Latin American fintech. Parisian farmers’ markets, pizza firms and Singaporean hawkers have upgraded their systems so they can be paid instantly without physical contact or cash. Investors sense a tectonic shift, like the one that shook retailing. Conventional banks now account for only 72% of the stockmarket value of the global banking and payments industry, down from 96% in 2010.
这种势头不只出现在中国。新冠疫情推动了金融科技在其他地区的发展。电商交易和远程办公激增,数字支付也随之飙升。与去年相比,美国支付平台Venmo处理的支付额增长了52%,拉美金融科技平台Mercado Pago增长了142%。巴黎的农贸市场、披萨公司、新加坡的小贩都升级了自己的系统,以便能零接触、免现金地即时收款。投资者感受到了一种类似于当初撼动了零售业的结构性转变。如今,传统银行仅占全球银行及支付业市值的72%,而2010年时为96%。
If the surge in digital finance is universal, the business models behind it are not. In Latin America look out for digital banks and e-commerce pioneers such as Nubank and MercadoLibre, owner of Mercado Pago. In South-East Asia Grab and Gojek, two ride-hailing services, are becoming “super-apps” with financial arms. Fintech firms now provide the majority of consumer loans in Sweden. In America credit-card firms such as Visa (the world’s most valuable financial firm), digital-finance giants such as PayPal (the sixth) and the big banks both co-operate and compete. Tech giants such as Apple and Alphabet are dipping their toes in, tempted by the financial industry’s $1.5trn global pool of profits.
如果说数字金融热潮是全球共通的,其背后的商业模式则不然。在拉美,最值得注意的是数字银行和电商先锋,如Nubank和拥有Mercado Pago的MercadoLibre。在东南亚,Grab和Gojek这两家网约车公司已壮大成为拥有金融业务的“超级应用”。在瑞典,金融科技公司如今提供了大部分消费贷款。在美国,信用卡公司(如全球市值最高的金融公司Visa)、数字金融巨头(如市值排名第六的PayPal)和大型银行彼此既合作又竞争。在金融业1.5万亿美元的全球利润池的吸引下,苹果和Alphabet等科技巨头也开始试水。
There is much to be excited about. At its best, fintech offers big gains in efficiency. If the world’s listed banks cut expenses by a third, the saving would be worth $80 a year for every person on Earth. Ant makes razor-thin margins on payments and takes minutes to grant a loan. Gone are the days of getting gouged by money-changers in airports. Firms such as TransferWise and Airwallex offer exchange services that are cheaper and faster.
Digitisation also promises to broaden the spread of finance. Reaching customers will be easier and data will make loan underwriting more accurate. Firms like Square and Stripe help small businesses connect to the digital economy. In India and Africa digital finance can free people from dodgy moneylenders and decrepit banks. By creating their own digital currencies, governments may be able to bypass the conventional banking system and tax, take deposits from, and make payments to citizens at the touch of a button. Compare that with the palaver of Uncle Sam posting stimulus cheques this year.
Yet the fintech conquest also brings two risks. The first is that it could destabilise the financial system. Fintech firms swarm to the most profitable parts of the industry, often leaving less profit and most of the risk with traditional lenders. Fully 98% of loans issued through Ant in China ultimately sit on the books of banks, which pay it a fee. Ant is eventually expected to capture a tenth or more of Chinese banking’s profits. Lumbering lenders in the rich world are already crushed by low interest rates, legacy IT systems and huge compliance costs. If they are destabilised it could spell trouble, because banks still perform crucial economic functions, including holding people’s deposits and transforming these short-term liabilities into long-term loans for others.
The second danger is that the state and fintech “platform” firms could grab more power from individuals. Network effects are integral to the fintech model—the more people use a platform the more useful it is and likely that others feel drawn to it. So the industry is prone towards monopoly. And if fintech gives even more data to governments and platforms, the potential for surveillance, manipulation and cyber-hacks will rise. In China Ant is a cog in the Communist Party’s apparatus of control—one reason it is often unwelcome abroad. When Facebook, a firm not known for its ethical conduct, launched a digital currency, Libra, last year, it caused a global backlash.
As the fintech surge continues, governments should take a holistic view of financial risk that includes banks and fintech firms—Chinese regulators rightly snuffed out Ant’s booming business in loan securitisation, which had echoes of the subprime fiasco. Governments should also lower barriers to entry so as to boost competition. Singapore and India have cheap, open, bank-to-bank payment systems which America could learn from. Europe has flexible banking that lets customers switch accounts easily. Last, the rise of fintech must be tied to a renewed effort to protect people’s privacy from giant companies and the state. So long as fintech can be made safer, open and respectful of individual rights, then a monetary innovation led by China will once again change the world for the better.


多年来,摩根大通的老板杰米·戴蒙( )等人对蚂蚁一直既警惕又艳羡。蚂蚁剥离自电子商务公司阿里巴巴,目前用户超过10亿,主要在中国国内。它的支付网络去年的交易额达16万亿美元,覆盖8000万商户。支付业务只是它的开胃菜。其用户还可申请贷款、投资理财(有6000种投资产品供选择)和购买医疗保险。想象一下,这等同于把美国各家零售银行、华尔街的券商、波士顿的资产管理公司和康涅狄格州的保险公司糅合到一款由硅谷设计、几乎所有人都在用的应用里。其他中国公司,尤其是微信的母公司腾讯,也拥有走在最前沿的金融科技业务。
这种势头不只出现在中国。新冠疫情推动了金融科技在其他地区的发展。电商交易和远程办公激增,数字支付也随之飙升。与去年相比,美国支付平台处理的支付额增长了52%,拉美金融科技平台 增长了142%。巴黎的农贸市场、披萨公司、新加坡的小贩都升级了自己的系统,以便能零接触、免现金地即时收款。投资者感受到了一种类似于当初撼动了零售业的结构性转变。如今,传统银行仅占全球银行及支付业市值的72%,而2010年时为96%。
如果说数字金融热潮是全球共通的,其背后的商业模式则不然。在拉美,最值得注意的是数字银行和电商先锋,如和拥有 的。在东南亚,和这两家网约车公司已壮大成为拥有金融业务的“超级应用”。在瑞典,金融科技公司如今提供了大部分消费贷款。在美国,信用卡公司(如全球市值最高的金融公司)、数字金融巨头(如市值排名第六的)和大型银行彼此既合作又竞争。在金融业1.5万亿美元的全球利润池的吸引下,苹果和等科技巨头也开始试水。