New policy puts revenue squeeze on China’s payments giants

The era that saw China’s mobile payments providers making handsome interest returns on client money has officially ended.

Starting this week, non-bank payments companies must place 100 percent of their customer deposit funds under centralized, interest-free accounts as Beijing moves to rein in financial risks. In the past, third-party payments firms were allowed to hold pre-paid sums from buyers for a short period of time before transferring the money to merchants. This layout allowed companies like Alibaba’s payments affiliate Ant Financial and Tencent to earn interest by depositing customer money into bank accounts.

Exactly how much money Ant and Tencent derived from these deposits is unclear. Both companies declined to comment on the policy’s revenue implications but said they have complied with the rules and finished transferring all customer reserve funds to a centralized clearing system.

Here are some numbers to help grasp the scale of the lucrative practice. The central bank gave a two-year window for all payments firms to complete the transition as it gradually raised the reserve funds ratio, which climbed to 85 percent in November. By then, total customer funds deposited by non-bank payments companies into central custodians hit 1.24 trillion yuan ($180 billion), while another estimated 260 billion yuan was yet to come under regulated control, shows data published by the People’s Bank of China.

Collectively, the giants account for more than 90 percent of China’s third-party mobile payments and 34 percent of all third-party, internet-based payments (which include both PC and mobile transactions), according to research firm Analysys.

While the regulatory control surely has measurable revenue implication on payments firms, some experts point to another adverse consequence. “Now that payments companies are no longer putting deposits into their [partnering] banks, they lose bargaining power with these banks that charge commissions for handling their mobile payments,” an employee from a major payments firm told TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity.

Tencent doesn’t break down how much it makes from payments but the unit has grown rapidly over the past years while its major income source — video games — took a hit last year. Meanwhile Ant Financial has been diversifying its business to go beyond financial services. It has earnestly marketed itself as a “technology” company by opening its proprietary technologies to a growing list of traditional institutions like banks and insurance companies. Reuters reported earlier that technology services will make up 65 percent of Ant’s revenue in about four years, up from an estimated 34 percent in 2017.

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