Dawn of the neo-meta-banks

Digital is redefining the way we interact with money. While online banking is nothing new, virtual currencies are getting big enough to attract the attention of regulators. Mobile phones are becoming payment gateways and POS terminals; meanwhile, stored value and pre-paid debit cards are more ubiquitous than cheque accounts. (In Hong Kong, the Octopus card originally introduced as a payment system for public transport, then extended to small purchases like coffee and newspapers, has now launched a dedicated mobile SIM card.)

Last year, Wired magazine predicted that tomorrow’s banks will resemble Facebook, Google or Apple. And of course, PayPal is owned by eBay, so it sort of makes sense that tech giants with huge customer bases conducting millions of online and mobile transactions would be the source of new banking services. For example, earlier this month, online banking start-up, Simple was sold to a Spanish bank for $130m, even though it is not really a “proper” bank – more a banking services provider – because it had managed to attract customers who don’t want to deal with a “traditional” bank.

But where are the non-traditional banks and virtual financial services providers of the future actually going to come from?

The answer could be the People’s Republic of China.

Last week, it was reported that local tech companies Alibaba and Tencent will be included in a pilot scheme to establish private banks in China. The news should not be that surprising – Alibaba, for example, has already been using its experience and knowledge as a trading and sourcing platform to provide small-scale loans and export financing to Chinese manufacturers, funding production to fulfil customer orders. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou, where I met with a team working on credit analysis and risk management for this micro-financing business, drawing on data insights from the payment history and transactional activity of their SME clients. It was certainly impressive, and my colleagues and I were left in no doubt that there was every intention to take this expertise into a full-blown banking vehicle.

However, this being China, it’s not quite as straightforward as it seems. Just a few days after the private bank pilot was announced, the People’s Bank of China suspended a mobile payments system used by Alibaba and Tencent.

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