Queen of the colony
What Ant Group’s IPO says about the future of finance
The giant Chinese fintech upstart is expected to raise more than $30bn, eclipsing Saudi Aramco’s debut last year
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.
“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks.”，马云的经典名言
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.
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.
比其大小更重要的是蚂蚁所代表的含义。在全球范围内，它的重要性是其他中国金融机构无法做到的。中国的银行庞大但效率低下，背负着国家所有权的重担。相比之下，外国金融家对蚂蚁充满好奇、嫉妒和焦虑。据报道，白宫的一些鹰派人士想控制该公司或阻碍其IPO。蚂蚁是世界上集成度最高的金融科技平台：可以将其组合为Apple Pay（用于离线支付），PayPal（用于在线支付），Venmo（用于转账），Mastercard（用于信用卡），JPMorgan Chase（用于消费者融资）和 iShares（用于投资），保险经纪等，所有功能集合到一个 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.)