Payments

How Ant Financial is transforming the Chinese payments industry

  • Ant Financial has created a financial services ecosystem by zeroing in on two things fintech largely lacks: social payments, and as a result, alternative data
  • China is an example of how digital finance and alternative data can help bring more consumers into the ecosystem as well as new business to improve the overall economy
How Ant Financial is transforming the Chinese payments industry

Alibaba’s financial affiliate group is reaching out to the under-banked in China.

Alibaba’s Ant Financial Services Group has brought people with low income and limited to no credit history onto the financial grid by incorporating digital payments into existing e-commerce and social media platforms — a feat by any standards, especially as other markets, like the U.S., lag behind.

By using the customer data from those transactions, Ant has been able to give them access to other financial services its created that look a lot like typical core banking products — savings accounts, credit assessment and loans for consumers and small businesses — according to a report released Wednesday by the United Nations Better Than Cash Alliance.

“That Ant Financial is now able to analyze all that data and leverage the platform to extend loans to companies or individuals has had a big impact on how they produce new businesses,” said Camilo Tellez, head of research for Better Than Cash Alliance and the lead author of the report.

Ant Financial has basically found a way to scale financial access and wellness tools similar to existing apps in the U.S. either struggling to take hold or not really integrating with the other existing offerings – like the savings app Digit or micro investing app Acorns. But U.S. customers still largely pay with plastic, whereas mobile payments are so big in China that Ant can use transactional and other alternative data to create a true financial ecosystem. Friction around customer data is one of the biggest things in the U.S. keeping financial services siloed.

Ant Financial launched in 2014 and as of September 2016 had loaned $107.3 billion in loans to more than four million small businesses over its Alipay platform to date, according to the UN report. Grameen Bank, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning microfinance organization and community development bank, has lent $17 billion since its inception in 1976.

In China, 79 percent of adults have had a bank account at some point, according to the UN research, but only 10 percent of them have borrowed in the formal financial system and for them, their digital footprint of transactional data and payment behavior can add to their credit histories. The same is true of small businesses, which historically have had difficulty accessing credit or taking out loans because China’s major banks are so heavily focused on lending to state-owned enterprises. Sesame Credit, Ant’s social credit scoring system, now has more than 350 million registered users and 37 million small businesses that buy and sell on Alibaba Group marketplaces. Sesame examines customers’ credit history, financial behavior, contractual capacity, identity and users’ social networks.

There are also accessible ways for people to save and invest their money. Alibaba’s Yu’e bao lets customers invest the money “left behind” on digital wallets into a money market fund, earn interest on that spare change daily and still have the freedom to withdraw the funds when they want. Alipay effectively acts as a fund manager but is treated as a distribution service from a regulatory perspective. Customers can also use Yu’e bao funds to make e-commerce purchases. Yu’e bao, which now serves more than 152 million customers, grew its assets under management to $117 billion in 2016 from $29 million in 2013.

“You have all these different opportunities being created through these messaging platforms for younger entrepreneurs for small and medium sized enterprises,” Tellez said. “Hopefully some of that impact will be found in other markets and similarly be able to provide SMEs better access to capital.”

In China, merchants are required to accept mobile payments — each point-of-sale terminal needs to have near field communication technology built in — so they’re more accessible, user friendly and more people can take advantage of the opportunity, which allows more data to enter and flow through the system.

The closest thing to a social payments platform in the U.S. is Venmo, which stops at peer-to-peer money transfers. But Tellez says he sees Venmo 2.0 bringing the money transfer capability to merchants. While the U.S. has so far missed out on a lot of mobile payments opportunity the China has been using to the advantage of its financially excluded consumers, it’s possible merchant partnerships with Venmo or something like it could be how we actually start integrating mobile payments.

“As companies are leveraging more data analysis and they start looking at how to integrate wallet functionality into everyday activities, the wallets will become like silent pipes through which payments move,” he said. “We’ll see more partnerships happening where you don’t even recognize that you’re using Venmo to pay for things, it’ll be more seamless.”

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