Ant Group and fintech come of age
A blockbuster listing 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.
come back：If a style or a fashion comes back, it becomes popular again after being unpopular for a period of time
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.
在未来数周内，随着最大的金融科技公司蚂蚁集团（Ant Group）在香港和上海的巨额上市，中国在数字货币领域的卓越地位可能会展现出来。以筹集的现金来衡量，这可能是有史以来最大的 IPO，超过了去年的沙特阿美公司。一旦上市，成立于2004年的蚂蚁公司的价值可能与全球最大的银行摩根大通（JPMorgan Chase）相似，后者的历史可追溯至1799年。蚂蚁的崛起令白宫的鹰派担忧，并吸引了全球投资者。它预示着不仅在中国而且在世界范围内，金融体系运作方式的巨大转变。
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 (see Briefing). 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.
China is not alone. The pandemic has supercharged activity elsewhere (see article). 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.
中国并不孤单。新冠病毒大流行在其他地方有加剧的活动。伴随着全球电子商务和远程工作的激增，数字支付也随之兴起，与去年相比，美国网络公司 Venmo 的数字支付增长了52%，拉丁美洲金融科技公司 Mercado Pago 的数字支付增长了142%。巴黎农贸市场、比萨饼公司和新加坡小贩对他们的系统进行了升级，因此无需亲身接触或现金就可以立即付款。投资者感受到了一种结构性转变，就像电商动摇了零售业一样。传统银行现在仅占全球银行业和支付行业股票市场价值的72％，低于2010年的96％。
the global banking：全球银行业
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.
如果数字金融的激增是普遍的，那么背后的商业模式就不是了。在拉丁美洲，请留意数字银行和电子商务先驱，比如 Nubank 和 MercadoLibre（MercadoPago的所有者）。在东南亚，Grab 和 Gojek 这两个叫车服务已成为具有金融实力的“超级应用程序”。现在，金融科技公司提供了瑞典大部分的消费贷款。在美国的信用卡公司（如Visa，世界上最有价值的金融公司）中，数字金融巨头（如居第六的PayPal））和大型银行都进行了合作和竞争。苹果和 Alphabet 之类的科技巨头正为金融业1.5亿美元的全球利润池所吸引，也想来分一杯羹。
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.
有很多令人兴奋的事情。在最好的情况下，金融科技可以大大提高效率。如果全球上市银行将开支削减三分之一，那么每个地球人每年可节省80美元。蚂蚁支付这项服务的利润微乎其微，发放贷款需要几分钟时间。在机场被货币兑换商挖苦的日子已经一去不复返了。诸如 TransferWise 和 Airwallex 之类的公司提供更便宜，更快捷的交换服务。
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.
数字化也有望扩大金融的传播。接触客户将更容易，数据将使贷款承销更加准确。Square 和 Stripe 等公司帮助小型企业连接数字经济。在印度和非洲，数字金融可以使人们摆脱狡猾的放债人和破旧的银行。通过创建自己的数字货币，各国政府只需按一下按钮，便可以绕开常规的银行系统和税收，从中提取存款并向公民付款。相比之下，今年山姆大叔发表了经济刺激的空话。
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.
第二个危险是，国有和金融科技“平台”公司可能会从个人手中夺取更多权力。网络效应是金融科技模型不可或缺的组成部分-使用平台的人越多，它就越有用，并且可能会吸引其他人。因此，该行业倾向于垄断。而且，如果金融科技向政府和平台提供更多数据，则监视，操纵和网络黑客的潜力将会增加。去年，当一家以道德行为闻名的公司 Facebook 发行数字货币 Libra 时，引起了全球的强烈反对。
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.