Ant Financial runs Alipay, which says the payment service and its
affiliates have more than 1 billion (pdf) annual active users around the
world. Alipay’s most recent deal outside of its home market is with
Barclaycard, which processes almost half of Britain’s debit and credit
card transactions. The agreement lets UK merchants accept Alipay
smartphone transactions without having to replace their payment
equipment. Ant Financial is an affiliate of the Alibaba e-commerce
On their own, Chinese tourists are an enormous market: they spent $258
billion in 2017, almost double that of second-ranked US holiday-goers.
Alipay is available in 54 markets, and is a partner with the likes of
India’s Paytm (Ant also has a stake in the fast growing payment
service). Observers have long seen Alipay’s Chinese tourist strategy as a
“spearhead” to one day go after non-Chinese customers.
Recently, Ant’s prospects for global expansion have become much more
complicated. The US and China are locked in a trade war, and American
officials have been warning allies about what they say are security
risks of using equipment made by Chinese telecom group Huawei.
Ant has been under far less scrutiny than Huawei, which was founded by a
former military engineer. Even so, the US blocked Ant’s acquisition of
payment-transfer company MoneyGram in January 2018, citing national
security concerns. Britain has been more open minded—earlier this year,
Ant purchased UK payments group WorldFirst (paywall) in a deal
reportedly worth around $700 million, making it the company’s biggest
push yet into western markets. WorldFirst shuttered its US operations,
apparently to avoid US interference in the deal.
Ant CEO Eric Jing says the company got its name because ants are small
and its service was for the “little guys.” These days, though, the
company is a behemoth. It raised almost as much money last year as all
EU and US fintech firms combined, giving it a $150 billion valuation,
the most in the world for a technology startup. While best known for
Alipay, Ant also offers a credit rating system and a giant money market
fund. After social-media apps, Alipay is the most-used app in the world.
Chinese regulators have taken note of Ant’s fast growth and potentially
systemically important size. As scrutiny grows, the company has shifted
its focus from offering its own financial products to running a
technology platform for other financial companies. Its tech is plugged
into more than 200 institutions, including banks, wealth managers,
brokerages, and insurers.
Financial executives in New York and London have mixed opinions about
Ant and Alipay. Some think the Chinese company’s QR-code smartphone
wallets could one day compete with old fashioned payment cards in the
west. Others think behaviors are slow to change and that contactless
card payments are already entrenched.
A year ago, BlackRock co-founder Robert Kapito said he was “shocked”
(paywall) by Ant’s valuation (higher than that of BlockRock, the world’s
biggest asset manager), and worried its rise was a sign of tech
disruption coming for incumbent financial companies. The trade war and
tighter regulatory scrutiny have altered the playing field for Ant, but
execs around the world are keeping a close watch on the Chinese
company’s western ambitions.