China has demonstrated a willingness to innovate in the financial services technology sector. For example, the Chinese government has announced accelerated plans for a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), the People's Bank of China (PBOC) has filed scores of CBDC patents and fintech initiatives like Baidu’s Xuperchain network have been introduced to great fanfare. What's more, the PBOC's Fintech Development Plan (2019 – 2021) expresses support for technological innovation, including the use of public cloud.
However, the Chinese government is also traditionally cautious in regard to security and control. Thus, financial services companies in China who are contemplating the migration of critical business applications to the cloud would be well-advised to plan carefully. To that end, Chinese regulators have reportedly engaged in private conversations with information security representatives from several foreign banks, advising them that critical hosting engagements in the cloud will need to be handled exclusively by specialised "Financial Community Cloud" providers who have been certified by the government.
Tencent is stepping up its fintech investments outside of China, where it and Alibaba's fintech arm Ant Financial effectively have a market duopoly. One approach for Tencent is direct expansion - the launch of WeChat Pay in international markets. That's a good idea in any country frequented by Chinese tourists or business travelers.
But direct expansion only goes so far, especially in developed economies. Tencent doesn't expect consumers in Europe or the United States will opt for WeChat Pay instead of Apple Pay, Google Pay, or apps created by local banks and fintechs. Instead, the Shenzhen-based company is taking strategic stakes in ascendant startups, including French mobile payment app Lydia and challenger bank Qonto. These investments will give Tencent a chance to grow its fintech business in Europe through local rising stars.
No China fintech segment has fallen faster and harder than peer-to-peer lending. Not even cryptocurrency, which Beijing all but outlawed, has been crippled like P2P lending. The reason is simple: The scam-ridden P2P lending segment robbed hundreds of thousands of retail investors of their life savings. Some distraught victims even committed suicide. There were massive Ponzi schemes. Ezubao, a now defunct P2P lender which was based in Anhui, defrauded US$7.6 billion from 900,000 investors before it imploded. A Beijing court sentenced Ezubao's founder to life in prison in 2017. Shanlin Finance, which was based in Shanghai, swindled US$9 billion from investors before authorities broke it up in 2018.
In Beijing's view, scams of that size threaten social stability. With that in mind, the government had no choice but to crack down on the largely unregulated segment. To be sure, Beijing's dragnet has snagged some compliant lenders as well as miscreants. Yet, from the government's perspective, that's a small price to pay to assert control over the industry and reduce systemic financial risk. As of the end of 2019, just 343 P2P firms were still operating, down from 6,000 at the sector's 2015 peak. Authorities in Gansu, Hebei, Hunan and Sichuan Province as well as the municipality of Chongqing shut P2P lending down completely.
Although the U.S. and China are on the verge of signing a phase one trade deal, the trade war is far from over. Most of the hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs the two countries have levied on each other over the past 19 months remain in place. The bilateral relationship is as fraught as at any time since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. Yet, the "financial war" forecast by pundits hasn't materialized.
The Chinese banking system is having a tough year. While the big banks are generally in fine shape, many smaller lenders are troubled. At some small lenders, primarily in rural areas, bad debt levels approach 40%. Beijing has already taken the unprecedented step of bailing out a trio of banks in succession this year, beginning with Baoshang Bank in May, and then moving on to Bank of Jinzhou and Hengfeng Bank.
Africa is integral to China's mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion infrastructure plan intended to deepen economic links between China and the world. BRI in Africa usually brings to mind the construction of bridges, rail lines, airports and roads across the continent, but it increasingly involves digital infrastructure too. Africa, where China has been steadily building its presence since 2000, offers Chinese fintech investors opportunities they can't easily find elsewhere. It's one of the world's fastest growing consumer markets, is expected to reach a population of 1.7 billion by 2030 and is eager to boost financial inclusion with digital banking.
As tensions between China and the United States have escalated, the financial sector has been affected. The future of Chinese firms in U.S. capital markets has never been more uncertain, with the possibility of forced delisting real. Even if the related legislation never makes it to the Senate floor, Chinese firms will face much greater scrutiny than in the past when they file for an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange or the Nasdaq.
Yet, the fintech arm of Ping An, China's largest insurance company, has decided to file for an IPO in the U.S. anyway. Analysts had reckoned that Ping An's SoftBank-backed fintech unit, which is named OneConnect, would go public in Hong Kong, raising up to US$2 billion. OneConnect listed its offering size in the U.S. as $100 million, according to The Financial Times.
There is no doubt that fintech has boosted financial inclusion in China. Affordable banking services provided by the digital finance duopoly of Alibaba and Tencent have helped millions of individual Chinese and small businesses gain access to credit that traditional lenders would never have extended to them. In Tencent's case, its WeBank has performed a rare feat for a fintech: It has quickly become profitable (in under five years), built tremendous scale and largely escaped the ire of regulators.
Policymakers in Beijing have long chafed at the preeminence of the U.S. dollar in the global financial system. Before the presidency of Donald Trump, it was something that they grudgingly accepted. After all, they weren't ready to let the renminbi float and open their capital account. And they still aren't. Both actions would be necessary to challenge the dollar's dominance as a global reserve currency.
Yet, amidst rising tensions with Washington that are creeping into the financial sector, Beijing is moving to challenge "dollar hegemony" in other ways. Finding a way to circumvent Washington's control over global financial flows is a priority. In late October, Russian media reported that China, Russia and India have decided to work together to develop an alternative to the SWIFT interbank messaging network that undergirds international finance. While Belgium-based SWIFT is independent, the U.S.'s rivals - and even some its allies - say that Washington has too much influence over the organization.
When it comes to financial reform in China, the devil's not in the details. It's in the implementation. When Beijing wants to enact change in the financial system, it can do so quickly. Consider the rise of fintech in China over the past five years. It's transformed the Chinese financial system. Unfortunately, foreign firms largely missed out on that opportunity. Paypal, who just got approval to enter China, is arriving a bit late to the party. Never mind that, say some observers. If only Paypal can get 3-5% of that market of 1.4 billion people, it will have a sizable business, they say. If only.
That brings us to the latest chapter in the Chinese financial reform saga. In early October, China’s securities regulator announced it would scrap foreign ownership limits on fund management companies from April 2020. Global asset managers would very much like increased access to China's massive $2 trillion retail fund market. This would seem to be their chance.
In the early 2010s, back when Donald Trump still hosted The Apprentice and the title of "Tariff Man" belonged to Herbert Hoover, China was pursuing high-profile financial reform. Shanghai, tasked by the central government with becoming a global financial center by 2020, was abuzz with the sound of renminbi internationalization. The Lujiazui financial district regularly hosted forums where participants benchmarked the growing use of the yuan in trade settlement, the rise of offshore yuan trading hubs in Hong Kong and London and the renminbi's path to global reserve currency status.
Financial reform in China has been stalled for years. Foreign banks have never managed to hold more than about 2.4% of the market - and that was back in 2007. KPMG estimates their share of domestic assets actually fell to just 1.32% by the end of 2017. The renminbi internationalization process gives new meaning to the term "incremental." The exchange rate remains controlled and the capital account closed, just as they were a decade ago when Beijing began promoting the yuan's use globally.
Yet, there are signs of change. In September, Beijing granted Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas the right to underwrite onshore debt in China, a first for foreign banks in the world's second largest economy. Later in the month, China removed limits on two institutional investment policies that allow foreigners to invest in Chinese financial markets: the QFII scheme (dollar-denominated) and RQFII (yuan-denominated). Those moves follow Beijing's decision to allow foreign banks to take majority stakes in local securities joint ventures.
In China's peer-to-peer lending sector, there's no such thing as too big to fail. Chinese authorities have since last year been cracking down on widespread impropriety in the once ascendant segment. Even the preeminent platforms have not escaped unscathed, leaving many observers wondering if we have reached P2P's twilight in China.
As the Sino-US trade war steadily escalates, tensions are inevitably spilling into the financial sector. While much press coverage has focused on the U.S. naming China a currency manipulator - something that hasn't happened since 1994 - there has not been any punitive action following the designation. The decision by Washington looks more like a pointed criticism of China's long-stalled financial reforms. Remember when it was common to hear bankers speculate that China's capital account would be freely convertible by 2020?
Those were the days. Regardless, monetary policy is actually less of a flashpoint in the trade war than compliance. The alleged involvement of three major Chinese banks in the financing of North Korea's nuclear weapons program - in violation of sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom - has the potential to entangle some of China's largest lenders in a new front of the trade war.