Views on the integrity of global capital markets
12 February 2015

Are Tencent, Alibaba Innovators or a New Cog in the Chinese Regime?

Posted In: Market Structure

Ever since Alibaba and Tencent secured commercial banking licenses from the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) in September and July 2014, respectively, the Internet big boys’ onslaught into the financial industry arena has been nothing short of spectacular. And with both companies going a step further in gaining clearance from the CBRC to establish their consumer credit rating operations in January 2015, their presence may prove revolutionary. Already some in the Chinese capital markets prophesize the eventual obsolescence of traditional financial intermediaries there.

Indeed, Internet financing in China has been touted by some of its hardcore supporters to be the panacea towards establishing a more convenient payment mechanism, and one that has the least informational asymmetry. With the rise of Internet financing, these supporters say traditional intermediaries such as a bank, security house, and financial exchange will gradually lose their relevance, leading to a great reduction in the cost of capital for every stakeholder within the ecosystem. (View the investor protection issues CFA Institute has raised in connection with crowdfunding.)

Beneath all these seemingly grand Internet financing capital market benefits, however, lurks a slow, strong, agenda-driven undercurrent — the Chinese government.

A school of thought has attributed Alibaba’s and Tencent’s success to loopholes within the legal framework. By the time regulators caught up to them, their financial business operations had surpassed the point at which they could be contained. This “too-big-to-fail” argument might sound plausible on the surface, but to those with a better understanding of the Chinese legal, cultural, and political systems, where nothing happens by chance, it barely holds water.

First, when it comes to legal enforcement in China, the interests of the country and political party override everything. Regardless of whether the regulatory framework is robust enough to deal with such innovative evolution as described here, the Chinese government still possesses the power to veto anything it deems unfavorable. Such a situation might be unthinkable in the West, but it is common stuff in this part of the world.

Second, most of the banks with sizable balance sheets in China are state-owned. That includes the Bank of China (BOC), the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). Together, these banks make up the supporting pillars for the Shanghai and Shenzhen Stock Exchanges, and to a certain extent the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. As such, without the inherent blessing from the Central Politburo, it is next to impossible for both Alibaba and Tencent to throw their punches directly at these state-owned money-spinners.

Third, Alibaba and Tencent are Chinese-owned enterprises. One of the best ways to tackle the inefficiency and complacency within state-owned banks is to create external competition. However, national interest still takes top priority. To strike a balance between safeguarding national interests and injecting competition into the finance industry, grooming home-grown enterprises like Alibaba and Tencent is the preferred solution.

Need more convincing? Think about this. The Chinese government did not question Alibaba’s or Tencent’s entrance into the consumer credit market? In fact, both the CBRC and Xinhua news agency (China’s official voice of the Central Politburo) were effectively silent when all these activities were going on in the background. Also, Alibaba’s and Tencent’s maiden encroachments into the banking sector occurred during a series of banking reforms specifically directed to tackle the complacency and inefficiency within state-owned banks.

Internet financing is something truly unique to China and has no context in other parts of the world. Witnessing its evolutionary development within the Chinese capital markets is exciting, and continued analysis of it in the next five years will be insightful.

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Image credit: iStockphoto.com/Pogonici

About the Author(s)
Alan Lok, CFA

Alan Lok, CFA, is director of capital markets policy at CFA Institute. He is responsible for conducting research projects in the area of market instruments and market structures in the Asia-Pacific region. Mr. Lok works with regulators, institutional investors, academics, and various other stakeholders within the financial industry to uphold investor protection and market integrity.

4 thoughts on “Are Tencent, Alibaba Innovators or a New Cog in the Chinese Regime?”

  1. Dan says:

    Correction, Tencent is South African owned. 70% share is held by international media giant and afrikaans company Naspers.

    1. Alan Lok says:

      Thank you Dan for highlighting this piece of information. In terms of share composition, Tencent is predominantly owned by a foreign enterprise. In terms of daily operation and strategic intent, however, it is still very much in line with the Central Government and control is very much in the hand of its Chinese CEO and Chairman Mr. Ma Huateng. Without going into the details of Tencent’s company structure, which you can understand a bit better from another article (http://www.bdlive.co.za/businesstimes/2014/06/29/china-is-not-likely-to-kill-the-golden-goose-tencent), it is pretty obvious that the Chinese government can on one hand be pretty accommodative to foreign investors even in sensitive Chinese industries (media being one of them), as long as these investors know how to “behave” themselves. On the other hand, if things get intertwined with political agenda, the Chinese government will not hesitate to adopt a tough stance to rectify the situation. This is one good example of how cultural differences can affect the way companies are being structured, regulated, and operated depending on jurisdiction. In short, Tencent is by and large still a “Chinese-owned” company.

  2. Ramon Thomas says:

    This article is an eye-opener to the inner-workings of the Chinese financial system. Nothing happens without the Central government’s approval. National interests is supported by the reorientation of the economy taking place now from FDI inflows to Consumer spending. I’m holding my breath to see what the economy looks like by 2020.

  3. Alan Lok, CFA says:

    Thanks Ramon. We are also holding our breath to see how things will eventually unfold. During the interim, though, there will definitely be deeper insights from new developments in the Chinese capital market.

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