China Banking Research

All good things come to an end, and sometimes the end is long and drawn out. Such is the state of the latest fintech crackdown in China, which has evolved into an all-out effort to reign in Big Tech/platform companies. The tightening of supervision over firms like Ant Group and Tencent represents a major escalation over prior regulatory campaigns, which focused on cryptocurrency and peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. This time, Beijing is keen to clip the wings of the firms that have come to dominate its once-booming fintech sector. Not all of them are equally affected though.

China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 1/3 of the global total. Beijing is well aware of the effect its emissions have on climate change and has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, with emissions peaking in 2030. As part of its emissions reduction plan, China is introducing more eco-friendly practices in the financial services sector, but there is a steep learning curve.

It has been an eventful seven months for Ant Group, with more downs than ups. Ever since the suspension of its anticipated blockbuster IPO in November 2020, the fintech giant has been trying to satisfy a long list of regulatory demands to restructure its operations. Regulators have been especially concerned with what they perceive as a highly risky (and previously, lucrative) consumer lending business. With that in mind, Ant gaining approval to operate its new consumer lending unit Chongqing Ant Consumer Finance within six months is an important step in the right direction.

Fintech crackdowns in China tend to snowball. That was the lesson learned when Beijing began culling crypto and P2P lending firms. At first, it seemed those industry segments might survive if they could assuage regulators. It later became clear that the only way to satisfy regulators was to shut down or move into another line of business, as erstwhile P2P juggernaut Lufax did. China's fintech giants, once seemingly unassailable, now face their own day of reckoning with regulators. Ant Group and its counterparts are probably too big to fail. But they are not too big to be cut down to size.

China has a fast growing money-laundering problem. Beijing issued a record RMB 628 million (US$97 million) in fines for money laundering violations in 2020, up nearly 300% over a year earlier, according to a new report by PriceWaterHouseCoopers. Since payment firms accounted for 42% of all fines issued, it is no surprise that Chinese regulators are enhancing oversight of fintechs.

Lufax is one of the few prominent Chinese fintechs that foresaw tighter regulation of online lenders, perhaps because the company began as a peer-to-peer lender. As Beijing in 2017 launched what would become a sustained campaign to eradicate the scandal-ridden P2P lending sector in China, Lufax moved to exit the industry. By 2019, Lufax had transformed from a P2P lender into an online provider of credit facilitation and wealth management services. It is thus no surprise that Lufax is weathering the current microlending crackdown well so far. The company's IPO went off without a hitch in New York, raising US$2.4 billion.

China's fintech boom was great while it lasted. The abortive Ant Group IPO heralded the end of that era. That's not to say that digital finance will fade away in China. Rather, the state will exert greater control over fintechs. Tighter regulations, similar to what incumbent banks face, will cut into fintechs' bottom lines and constrain their growth prospects. That does not augur well for Tencent, which counts fintech - through its WeChat Pay wallet and WeBank digital bank - as one of its core business groups. Bloomberg estimates that Tencent's fintech business was worth RMB 200 billion to RMB 300 billion before the Ant IPO was suspended.

On November 2nd, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange held talks with Ant Group’s management executives, including its founder Jack Ma. The next day, regulators issued new draft rules to tighten China’s rapidly growing online microlending sector. Ant Group’s IPO in Shanghai and Hong Kong was subsequently suspended after Ant said there had been “material changes” in the regulatory stance on financial services, which could result in Ant failing to meet the conditions for listing and providing information disclosures.

China's peer-to-peer lending crackdown has been a lesson in risk management with Chinese characteristics. While SOE juggernauts in China may be too big to fail, the P2P lending sector was too big to prevail. Massive scams on the largely unregulated platforms defrauded retail investors of their life savings, threatening social stability. The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission reckons that P2P lenders still owe depositors about RMB 800 billion (US$115 billion). There are just 29 P2P lenders left in China today, compared to 6,000 when the crackdown began in 2015.

Some things just weren't meant to be, like peer-to-peer lending in China. What began as a legitimate way to support financial inclusion through internet finance morphed into a scam-ridden zombie industry. Beijing has moved to shut down the majority of P2P lenders that haven't imploded on their own. The industry is going the way of crypto, another member of the fintech family that ran afoul of China's regulators. In a recent Sina Finance commentary, former Chongqing mayor Huang Qifan gave a scathing criticism of P2P lending, likening it to a digital version of traditional pyramid schemes he says have long existed in rural China.

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