Dispelling false analogs in Emerging Market Fintech

China’s success in financial
technology inspires legions of EM fintech hopefuls worldwide, spurring them to
frenzied product expansion. Private and public market investors consider EM
fintech an assured tale of disruption, while traditional bankers view the
gathering storm with fear and loathing. A headier concoction has rarely been
found–hundreds of millions of under-banked consumers, tens of millions of
under-serviced merchants, and plentiful capital to grease the over-throw of a
sclerotic financial system. China stands as the shining mast of this advancing
force. As the fintech narrative goes, regulators are standing by, part
ignorant, part clueless, and at times even eager partners in the revolution.
What can possibly go wrong?

Our travels in emerging markets have
made us acutely aware of the vast opportunity this sector presents, but have
also made us cognizant of the unique contextual factors that bode more sober
and situational evaluation of all the investment opportunities. The success of
fintech in China has provided enthusiasm to investors and companies around the
world but applying a “China template” to all fintech circumstances in EM is overly
simplistic. Variations in three broad factors make us question the conventional
false analogs between China and EM fintech today:

  • Catalysts:
    The driving force of fintech adoption comes from transactional use cases, which
    differ in intensity and characteristics across EM. For example, ecommerce
    penetration in many EM countries–such as India and Brazil—is much lower than it
    is in China. Elsewhere, ride hailing and food delivery, rather than ecommerce,
    are the more common catalysts, such as in SE Asia.
  • Regulatory response: Regulators are stirring to taking action
    everywhere, with diverse agendas. In China, for example, interest income in
    escrow accounts was recently eliminated. In India, the United Payments
    Interface (UPI) weakens the walled gardens fintech platforms aspire to create.
    In Brazil, regulators want a centralized market for receivables, potentially
    changing pricing dynamics in a unique and lucrative business segment that fintech
    companies currently enjoy.
  • Competitive intensity: Fintech is no longer the surprise no one saw
    coming. The China story is well known to challengers and incumbents alike. This
    implies a longer competitive tussle in many parts of EM, and a more agile
    response from incumbent banks, as rival platforms vie for supremacy.

But first, China.

China’s fintech explosion – will there be
another like it?

In Q1 2019, mobile payment volume in China crossed $8 trillion for the quarter, a 25% increase year-over-year1. In contrast, the US recorded just $115 billion of mobile payment volumes in the full year 20182. Research found that 95% of Chinese internet consumers used mobile payments at least once in a three-month period3, with average users transacting four times a day. That far exceeds the US where only a fifth of the population had ever used a mobile payment service, as of 20184.

Mobile payment adoption has led to spectacular
expansion in adjacent market expansion China. Asset management offerings of Ant
Financial, an Alibaba affiliate) and Tencent  reached over $250 billion in assets under
management (AUM) at the end of 2018, representing about 12% of the total
domestic mutual fund AUM in China5. These
two platforms serve the lion share of users – nearly a billion people use
Tencent’s WeChat Pay and over 700m people use Alibaba’s Alipay6 in China (and over 900m globally). In comparison,
the most popular traditional banking mobile app in China (ICBC) attracts about
53m monthly active users7. By the end
of 2017, Ant Financial claimed to have reached nearly $100 billion in
outstanding consumer loans – representing a low-teen share of Alibaba’s total
ecommerce gross merchandise value (GMV) for the year. Alibaba and Tencent also offer
insurance distribution, credit scoring and technology services. Additionally,
both companies own a bank license. China’s fintech juggernauts target not only
individual consumers, but also small businesses and merchants. For example, by
mid-2018, 11 million small businesses had used Ant Financial for unsecured
lending (this is about a fifth of all the Small and Medium Enterprises in
China), 21 million had used Ant for cash management, and 40 million had used
Ant for small business insurance8.

Figure 1: Payments, Wealth Management, Financing, Insurance and Credit Scoring on Alipay

Source: Annual disclosures by Ant Financial dated August 2017 and August 2018, respectively

That said, the fintech story has not
always been onward and upward, even in China. Regulations have tightened
steadily. The creation of a centralized payments network – NetsUnion – breaks
the bilateral relationship between fintech companies and traditional banks. The
regulators have prohibited fintech companies from earning interest income on wallet
balances. At its peak, this income stream accounted for nearly 50% to 60% of
the operating profits of Alibaba and Tencent’s fintech platforms9. Issuer fees have been capped, and new
restrictions have been placed on the amount of flows through digital wallets.
For example, RMB200,000 is the annual upper limit for consumptions and
transfers on all combined wallet balances. This is concerning for a significant
portion of power users, given that the average Alibaba ecommerce consumer
spends some RMB12,000 a year on the platform alone.

Yet, we can reasonably conclude that
fintech in China is now too large, pervasive, and dominant to be impaired by
regulatory restrictions. Even so, findings from China’s case cannot be fully extrapolated
to other emerging markets, as a quick dive into three regions illustrates.

Latin America – ground zero of a new fintech

Since 2017, Latin American (LatAm) fintech
companies have grabbed over half of all the investment inflows to the region10. In 2018 alone, 1166 new
fintech start-ups sprouted up in the region, up from 703 in 201711. Stone and Pag Seguro raised $1
billion each in 2018 via initial public offerings (IPOs). Recently, Mercado
Libre–the region’s pre-eminent ecommerce platform–raised $1.85 billion in new
funds via a public share offering as well as direct investments from companies
including PayPal. Elsewhere in LatAm, Nubank raised $400m in late July 2019.

Consider the opportunities. Brazil is
unique in that over 60% of purchases are made on credit, and of that, over half
are routed through multiple monthly interest-free installments–with the average
number of instalments being five. This indicates selling merchants must wait
for cash, and a thriving pre-payment business (i.e. factoring of receivables),
where fintech companies have created profitable beachheads. Annualized yields
on this business can range from 20% at the lower end to nearly 40% at the upper
end, depending on the bargaining power of the merchants. Powered by pre-payment
revenues, fintech companies are now flexing their muscle to expand into
adjacent markets. The battle for offline point-of-sale acceptance, which played
out fiercely between Alibaba and Tencent from 2015 to 2018, is about to begin in
LatAm with several aspirants in the mix.

Elsewhere, rampant income inequality
(Brazil is the ninth most unequal country in the world, as per Gini ratios) has
meant that vast swaths of people remain unbanked, and with no access to any
financial product but cash. These factors create a two-sided opportunity for fintech
companies. For small businesses, faster access and adoption of credit over cash
is a key area fintech companies can tap into. For consumers, fintech companies aspire
to roll out mobile wallet use cases, through which asset management products,
insurance distribution, remittances, as well as consumer loans could flourish.

But this excitement needs some
tempering. If fintech is to ride the back of transactions and use cases, LatAm
presents some points of friction. Ecommerce penetration in the region varies
from 4% (Mexico) to 7% (Brazil). This market penetration is rising and should benefit
those who own both an ecommerce and a fintech platform, such as Mercado Libre.
But logistics costs can be four times higher than they are China, partly because
of rampant theft of delivered parcels and resultinghigh insurance costs for
shipping. Income inequality also swings both ways–on one end, it creates the
unbanked millions, but on the other, it means that the middle class and the
rich have ample access to offline retail malls, credit cards, and all the
trappings of convenience that have hindered the adoption of fintech in some
developed markets like the US. The ecosystem of small businesses in Latam is also
under-developed–there are just over 1m small businesses in Brazil with annual
sales above $1 million, and many “single person” businesses (some 5 million of
these). The region’s largest ecommerce platform has under 20m active consumers in
any given quarter, despite a population of over 600 million.

India – too early to declare winners

Unlike most EM countries, India is
blessed with a national ID and credit union infrastructure. India has the
world’s largest and most sophisticated ID biometric program, called Aadhaar,
which covers 1.2 billion people out of its 1.3 billion population. Its credit
union, called CIBIL, has been operating since 2001, and is currently tracking 600
million individuals and 32 million businesses with a comprehensive and reliable
credit-scoring system. Together, the national ID and credit union infrastructure
can simplify the Know-Your-Customer process and lower retail credit cost, which
are often the biggest barriers to entry for fintech companies.

Furthermore, India exhibits the necessary
conditions for leapfrogging fintech. Today, digital payments represent only 15%
of total payments in India, well under the 60% level already achieved in China12. There are 4 point of sale (POS) terminals
per 1,000 debit cards in India, way below 13 per 1,000 POS terminals in the US13. The lack of formal payment infrastructure
has propelled fintech companies like Paytm–an Ant Financial and Softbank-backed
company–to come up with a mobile wallet alternative that is cheaper and more
convenient to use than the traditional credit/debit cards. To date, Paytm has
signed up 12 million merchants, which is 10 times the merchant base of the
existing card networks. Paytm’s registered user base has reached almost 500
million with 55 million monthly active users, who generate $100 billion of
transaction volume on an annual run-rate14.

That said, it is too early to declare
winners in the Indian fintech space. India’s relatively open economy means that
global big tech, like Google and Amazon, are serious competitors to local
counterparts. In fact, Google Pay is neck and neck with Paytm in term of UPI
payment volumes. Amazon India was last reported to have overtaken Flipkart with
$7.5 billion in GMV in FY18 and is fully capable of leveraging its ecommerce
platform to foster adoption of Amazon Pay, its own fintech solution.

South East Asia (“SEA”) – fifty shades of fintech,
regional apps leading

Collectively, SEA represents a $4 trillion
economy, almost two times larger than that of India. The topology of SEA is
highly nuanced in terms of economic development, competitive dynamics, and
regulatory directions.

The biggest opportunity in SEA is
Indonesia, a $1 trillion economy, where the drive to acquire customers pushes
from the two front-running fintech platforms, Ovo, backed by Grab, and Go-Jek,
have expanded the fintech market significantly. As of July 2019, Grab/Ovo had
covered 110 million users15. Grab/Ovo
has been the payment of choice for Tokopedia, the largest Ecommerce platform
with 30% market share in Indonesia, and the Lippo group, the largest offline
retailer in the country. As a result, Grab/Ovo has on-boarded 400 thousand retailer
outlets (versus 300 thousand for Go-Jek) and is now available in 90% of
shopping malls, department stores, coffee shops, cinemas, and food and beverage

The race to payment ubiquity is relentless. Grab/Ovo’s willingness to partner–rather than doing it alone – helped put it ahead of their closest rival. That said, card penetration – including both debit and credit – in Indonesia is still less than 10%, and about 60% of Indonesians don’t have access to banks. The biggest competitor for fintech companies is their peers, or even banks, but rather cash.

Figure 2: Southeast Asia Bank Account and Credit Card Penetration

Source: (Feb 2018)

At the other end of the spectrum,
Singapore is by far the most developed financial market where bank account
penetration is almost 100% and credit card penetration is 35%. The Monetary
Authority of Singapore (MAS) wants to promote fintech development and will soon
issue five digital banking licenses. However, the MAS has made it clear it doesn’t
want disruptors. Instead, it is looking for companies that can add value to the
existing ecosystem.  Fintech innovation
in Singapore will likely be developed in partnership with or led by the local

The remaining countries in South East
Asia straddle in between the two extremes, with the lack of banking
infrastructure inducing regulators to promote fintech development alongside or
even ahead of banks. In almost all markets, customers are spoiled with choices,
and consumers in SEA use an average of 3.2 digital payment platforms.

Figure 3: Average Number of Digital Payment Platforms Used by Consumers

Source: Bain & Company (2018)

The multilateral relations among SEA
countries allow for development of regional apps, like Grab in ride-hailing
(60% market share) and Shopee in Ecommerce (SEA’s largest ecommerce platform
with $3.5 billion in GMV and the highest customer traffic in Q1 2019)16.
Leveraging their customer traffic, these apps have been able to nurture their
own fintech platforms, first as payment solution providers and subsequently as
a channel to cross-sell additional financial products.

Great news for (some) banks

With the exceptions of Alipay and
Tenpay in China, no other fintech company in the emerging markets can claim
victory in payment yet. Outside of payment, the verdict is far from being
decided, for any fintech company in any market. The two biggest drawbacks of
fintech are data incompleteness and funding restriction. While fintech
companies can follow transactional data, they have not yet been able to obtain
the salary flows as most customers are not willing to deposit their salaries
directly to the fintech platforms. Fintech platforms have also been unable to
capture big-ticket purchases (mortgage, auto). The datasets for both types of
purchases currently sit within the traditional banks. In addition, because of
regulatory restrictions, banks are required to be the ultimate custodians of
customer deposits—globally, fintech is restricted from using customer deposits
for any risky balance-sheet activities.

This is great news for any traditional
banks that are willing to work with fintech companies to co-develop new
products or new business models. In most EM countries, more than two-thirds of
transactions are still done in cash. By bringing cash into the banking sector,
fintech can help banks improve deposit-gathering, which a development that allows
for a higher money multiplier to foster economic development while lowering the
cost of handling cash. Furthermore, with more data and an improved cost
structure, fintech can enable product innovations to cater to the broader population. The net gains from having a bigger
addressable market and lower expenses (operational, credit cost) should create
a sizable profit pool for the financial sector overall. An example of a
successful collaboration can be small-ticket sized, high-frequency consumption
loans which were prohibitively expensive for banks to offer because of both
high operating expenses and high credit costs. As a result of online
disbursement and collection, as well as data collaboration, operating expenses
can be reduced dramatically.

Figure 4: Digital Penetration (% of Private Consumption Expenditure)

Source: IMF, World Bank, Nilson, Corporate reports (2017)


While we believe in the potentials of
fintech to bring about significant changes in the EM financial sector, we think
there are a very wide variance of outcomes across Emerging Markets. Even within
each EM country, outcomes can differ significantly between companies which have
the right ingredients to succeed and those which don’t.

In most EM countries today, the
fintech battles are far from being over, and the winners are most often not
decided yet. Moreover, it’s important to see how traditional banks evolve in
response to the rising competition in fintech.

As fundamental, bottom-up investors,
we will continue focusing on understanding the business models of fintech and
banks alike and we place our trust in companies which have superior economics
protected by a wide moat in the long run. Ultimately, the best predictor of
long-term performance is earnings, which are dictated by microeconomics not the
short-term trends.

Holdings in Invesco Oppenheimer Developing
Markets Fund

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. 6.68%
Tencent Holdings Ltd. 3.10%
Grab Holdings Inc. 1.53%
Mercado Libre Inc. 0.60%
Stone Pagamentos 0.34%
PagSeguro 0.00%
PayPal Holdings Inc. 0.00%
NuBank 0.00%
Google LLC 0.00% Inc. 0.00%
Go-Jek 0.00%


1 Source: iResearch, July 2019

2 Statista, 2019

3 As per iResearch, July

4 As per eMarketer, Nov

5 Media reports

6 Company disclosures

7 As per Analysys and
Bernstein Research

8 All disclosures from Ant
Financial, August 2018

9 As disclosed by Alibaba
and Tencent, for 2017


11 As per Survey IDB and Finnovista

12 IMF, , World Bank, Nilson, Corporate reports (2017)

13 Paytm

14 Paytm



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Bhavtosh Vajpayee is the Director of Equity Research for the
OFI Emerging Markets Equity team at Invesco. He joined Invesco in 2019, when
the firm combined with OppenheimerFunds.

Tan Nguyen is a Senior Research Analyst for the OFI Emerging
Markets Equity team at Invesco. He joined Invesco in 2019, when the firm
combined with OppenheimerFunds.

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