March 12 2020

Why did global fintech deals fall 3.7% in 2019?

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Fintech investment declined 3.7% in 2019 to US$53.3 billion as deals in China dropped off dramatically, according to a report published by Accenture in February. The slow in China deal flow can be attributed in part to the protracted U.S.-China trade war. Investor enthusiasm for the China market has cooled amidst an uncertain business environment. China's economy grew 6.1% in 2019, the slowest pace in three decades. At the same time, it would have been hard for China to equal its 2018 deal tally, buoyed by Ant Financial's mammoth US$14 billion funding round.

It is important to note that some of the most high-profile fintechs which raised millions of dollars last year have yet to break even, never mind post a profit: Revolut, N26, the fintech units of Grab and Gojek, to name a few. Yet, that did not stop investors from continuing to support their costly expansion. Accenture's data show that the 92% drop in China's fintech investment was the main reason for the modest decline in global fintech investment last year.

Indeed, even as China cooled off, the rest of the world heated up. U.S. deals rose 54% to US$26.1 billion. Fintech investments in the UK rose 63% to US$6.3 billion. India became the world's No. 3 fintech market as deals almost doubled compared to 2018, reaching US$3.7 billion. Deals more than doubled in Singapore to US$861 million and rose 50% in Australia to US$1.1 billion. Deal value in Brazil almost tripled to US$1.6 billion. 

Heading into 2020, there were some signs of trouble in the industry. India's top fintech startup Paytm has struggled amidst poor financials and rising competition. Protests in Hong Kong have delayed the city's launch of virtual banks. Ant Financial's IPO has been delayed indefinitely. N26 abruptly withdrew from the UK market in February, citing complications caused by Brexit.

Then COVID-19 broke out in China, crippling international travel and snarling global supply chains. By early March, new cases had dropped off significantly in China, but the virus was spreading fast elsewhere.

The virus is delivering a combined supply and demand shock to the global economy, creating far more uncertainty for businesses than the trade war ever did. Under this scenario, even the most bullish investors will likely hit pause on funding disbursement. Fintechs aiming to expand their operations - especially setting up new offices in different countries - should revise those plans. In the short run, deal flow will almost certainly fall, while many individual firms' operations will be affected.

As Forbes noted in a recent commentary, consumer-oriented fintechs face big risks. The U.S.'s Chime digital bank, for instance, relies on customers swiping their debit cards at merchant points of sale for most of its revenue. If people stay home, Chime will suffer.

Still, the long-term trajectory of fintech development may benefit from the vulnerabilities COVID-19 has highlighted. There is now greater impetus to establish digital banking platforms that can function independently of any retail branch network. Similarly, physical currency carries with it hygiene problems that can be reduced by using contactless payments.