Jack Ma or Ma Yun, right, chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, shakes hands with Li Qiang, Secretary of the Jiangsu provincial committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), during the 2017 World Internet of Things Exposition (WIOT) in Wuxi city, east China's Jiangsu province, 10 September 2017. Photo: AFP
Jack Ma or Ma Yun, right, chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, shakes hands with Li Qiang, Secretary of the Jiangsu provincial committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), during the 2017 World Internet of Things Exposition (WIOT) in Wuxi city, east China's Jiangsu province, 10 September 2017. Photo: AFP

Tech companies in China are playing an increasingly important role in the financial industry, widening their net into an ever more diverse set of services, and unless traditional banks and brick-and-mortar businesses can catch up, they are going to become increasingly irrelevant. Reform of state-owned enterprises and transformation of the old economy is going to come from the outside.

Alibaba is setting the pace for the massive disruption taking place. In the financial sector, Jack Ma’s company has already begun to tap into the boundless potential presented by Chinas’ middle class in the realm of wealth-management. The success of Yu’ebao, Alibaba subsidiary Ant Financial’s money market fund — the largest in the world — is just the tip of the iceberg.

Last month, Alibaba-backed, fintech-focused wealth management firm Yunfeng acquired MassMutual International’s Hong Kong unit. The cash and stock deal is a groundbreaking move, which underscores just how fast and furious Alibaba’s expansion into the financial sector is. The purchase will add insurance products to Yunfeng’s offerings.

“We see tremendous opportunities in Asia, but scale really matters and technology really matters,” MassMutual’s CEO said in an interview this week about the deal, through which MassMutual will retain equity interest. “We’re really excited about the wealth-management opportunities there.”

In April of this year, Yunfeng unveiled a robo-advisor app that would help the firm tap into potential demand from lower-income investors. The service, dubbed Youyu, lowers the cost of providing services to people with at least US$800 to invest by automating procedures such as risk-appetite assessment and know-your-client checks. At the time of the app’s launch, the firm hoped to attract tens of thousands of investors by the end of this year.

But Alibaba’s biggest splash so far in the financial services industry has been with the massively successful Yu’ebao, which overtook JPMorgan’s US government money market fund to became the world’s largest in April, after only four years of operation.

Despite years of lobbying from traditional banks to tighten regulations in areas such as money market funds, Chinese authorities are clearly supportive of the role these disruptive technologies are playing.

“Financial business on the internet is a new thing,” and regulators need to adapt… “but in general, financial policy supports the application of technology, so it needs to follow the footsteps of time and technology,” People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan was quoted as saying back in 2014, just as Yu’ebao was making its initial ascent.

Jack Ma and Donald Trump pose after their meeting at Trump Tower in January. Ma has shown a shrewd sense of how he can help China’s leaders. Photo: AFP/Timothy A Clary

In an interview with Stephen Engle of Bloomberg last Sunday, Ma explained one reason for Alibaba’s success dealing with regulators was the company’s proactive efforts dealing with authorities. “We always step ahead of the regulators – we have to. Otherwise, we go nowhere. But when you go ahead of the regulators, always there’s a painful thing.”

“We are very careful. When we were young, it’s okay. Now we’re big. We probably regulate ourselves much more strictly – much more — than the regulators,” he said. “We have to discipline ourselves much more.”

What Alibaba is doing clearly dovetails with the central government’s goals, which include tapping into the black economy by turning China into a cashless society – something India’s Modi is attempting to do, but has so far failed to accomplish. Because of this, judging from Ma’s confidence in particular, it is clear industry leaders have been given the green light thus far to forge ahead with their disruptions.

In response to a question from Engle about Alibaba’s role in state-owned enterprise reform, Ma explained “yeah, we’re pushing that, and this is why a lot of banks don’t like us in China. We’re not necessarily interested in buying the banks to change it, but because of us chasing them around, they reform.”

But Ma also has a knack for understanding politics and helping China’s leaders in other ways, as seen when he met with newly-elected President Trump to sell Alibaba’s potential to help US businesses create jobs.

And the disruption of the old economy is not limited to financial services, where Alibaba is already light years ahead of US tech firms. Alibaba is looking to dislodge the entire domestic Chinese brick-and-mortar retail establishment, transforming itself from an asset-light entity, as Alibaba co-founder and executive vice chairman Joe Tsai explained to Engle.

“We want to change the consumer experience because you now have this growing middle class in China whose expectations and demands are being elevated,” Tsai said of Alibaba’s new Hema retail locations. “Everything that’s done — in store purchase, eating, online purchase – is served from the same store location.”

Alibaba Co-founder Joe Tsai. Source: Screen grab of Bloomberg interview

There is no question that Alibaba, along with fierce competitor Tencent, have secured themselves key positions in China’s economy and are driving the country’s economic transformation. It is also clear, from a valuation perspective, they do not represent a bubble.

“I look at it from a very long-term perspective,” said Tsai. “If you take a step back and look at Alibaba, we went public in 2014. Our stock price at the time was US$68 a share. Today, at the current level it’s about two and a half times increase, but look at our revenues. During the same three year period, our revenues have tripled, so our stock price hasn’t even caught up with our revenue growth – yet.”

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