Fintech companies see a huge opportunity in turning assets related to trade finance into the mainstream of investment opportunities.
Demand should exist if these can be made easier to access. Receivables, letters of credit or supply-chain loans offer attractive risk-adjusted returns with low correlations to stocks or bonds.
Today, however, this is an asset class available mainly to large banks. Globally, investors such as hedge funds, insurance companies and family offices account for only about 10% of demand. In Asia, buy-side participation is even lower. (Federated, a U.S. fund management company, is a rare case of a mainstream buy side with trade-finance capabilities.)
Institutional investors face two hurdles, according to Jeremy Son, a fixed-income trader at Alliance Bernstein in Hong Kong.
First, invoices and other trade notes are not included in mandate guidelines. Second, these assets lack standardization and are therefore difficult to understand.
“You probably need a team of specialized credit analysts who understand the structure and underlying fundamentals,” said Son.
Two technology companies addressing these hurdles are Hong Kong’s Velotrade and Singapore’s CCRManager. The challenges are the same but their approaches are quite different.
Velotrade is now a licensed investment manager, while CCRManager is about to launch an index to give fund houses a benchmark for structured investments.
Velotrade targeted outside investors from the beginning of its life. Its business strategy could be compared to Steve Jobs, who said inventions like the iPhone were meant to create a demand that consumers didn’t know they had.
However, onboarding customers appears to be a bigger challenge than the founders expected; Velotrade would not disclose figures around user numbers or volumes.
CCRManager’s approach is, in contrary, iterating on proven customer demand. As we know, Steve Jobs is an outlier and his business model almost impossible to replicate.
To securitise receivables, Velotrade spend 20 months on a type 1 license granted by Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission. Now the company can split receivables into tranches that can be sold as a “collective investment scheme” which counts as a security under SFC rules.
Tranches of receivables are often low-value paper, more suitable for small investors. But this is intended to be an alternative asset class for institutions and professional investors. The business risk is a mismatch in the securities’ size, versus actual investing needs.
On the supply side, in order to provide high-quality assets, Velotrade hopes to attract a few large multinational companies. But these are precisely the clients that banks cater to now. Why would they switch to a small, untested platform?
Velotrade says some companies face macro uncertainties. Let’s say an oil refinery faces a downturn in oil prices. In volatile situations, companies need to diversify their funding channels.
But then in such a case, the risk profile of these securitized receivables would increase – which would require them to yield more to justify the risk to investors. Again it’s a question of whether the asset class fits actual investor demand.
CCRM is taking the path of working with the banks rather than trying to compete against them.
The Singapore company started out serving bank-to-bank trade-finance transactions.
“The majority of people in the market don’t know this kind of transaction exists”, George Lee, co-founder, COO and CFO, told DigFin.
When an importer asks a bank for a Letter of Credit (LC), that’s just a primary transaction, aka the origination. In theory the money follows the LC from the buyer’s bank to the recipient bank. In reality, banks often transact via a third bank that can facilitate a better price for the paper.
The process is manual, conducted over the phone.
This is an arcane trade among banks that leaves importers and exporters baffled. “Very often the clients don’t understand why it takes so long,” Lee said.
Focus on digitalisation has been on the client-to-bank transaction, but very little on the bank-to-bank space, Lee explained.
CCRM was started by ex-bankers from this niche field, and they attracted about 20 banks in Asia and Europe to co-design their trading platform, a digital peer-to-peer place for negotiations. It’s like an instant-messaging app, offering an audit trail and structured data that the participants can view.
Its first live transaction was in 2017 and it now has up to $500 million in monthly volumes.
From banks to fund managers
CCRM is planning to launch an index of average market prices.
To generate an index requires enough transaction data. So far the most activity on the platform are deals between Asia and Europe, so an index covering that is being rolled out in the fourth quarter. CRM has yet to decide whether to provide detailed percentages of price changes, out of concern it could breach user confidentiality (it’s a small market). But only users can see their own data; CCRM’s own people won’t have access to it.
The index should give banks a reference to measure the performance of its trading department, or to compare performance among traders. Initially it is aimed at banks but Lee says it will pave the way to bring in new investors, as the asset class becomes more transparent.
CCRM is in talks with development banks, credit insurers and fund houses, to understand how their information needs will very from banks’.
These non-bank investors will be included by the end of this year.
Lee says buy sides should be easier and faster to onboard, as fund managers would only be receiving data, not disclosing information of their own.
Half of Invesco’s China sales now via digital
But as the PRC joint venture learns how to distribute digitally, Invesco remains unsure of robo’s role in Asia.
This week DigFin is highlighting three asset-management firms’ approach to digital distribution, particularly in China. See also strategies from AllianceBernstein and BEA Union Investments. Go here for more insights into digital asset and wealth management.
Invesco is using its joint venture in mainland China, Invesco Great Wall, to figure out digital distribution.
The business now manages about $50 billion of assets, of which about 80% is retail, making it the fourth-largest Sino-foreign fund house in China. Over the past two years, half of retail inflows have come from new digital channels, as opposed to the traditional reliance upon banks, says Andrew Lo, senior managing director and Asia-Pacific CEO of Invesco in Hong Kong.
This is in keeping with a broader trend in the global mutual funds industry, which is shifting from one based on products to one focused more on investment solutions. “There’s an emphasis on designing outcomes for clients, such as through asset allocation or structuring,” to combine types of risk and asset classes.
That’s driven both by client demand as well as market volatility and challenges to active fund houses to deliver alpha (outperformance) on a net-free basis, compared to ultra-affordable passive investments tracking a benchmark.
That’s been an emerging story for the funds industry over the past decade. But on top of that is a new wrinkle: the ability to use technology to speed up operations and to reach more people.
“Technology is now changing the distribution landscape,” Lo said. “In China, it’s having quite an impact on reaching retail investors.”
For now this has been a story unique to mainland China, where existing bank channels (which dominate funds distribution in most Asian markets) are not well developed, and where regulation favors digital disrupters like Ant Financial.
The power of digital was evident in Ant’s success with money-market funds (under an affiliated fund house, Tianhong Asset Management), but it has now extended to equity and quant products onshore – products that Invesco’s J.V. now sells through fintech channels, including Ant, East Money Information, JD.com (Jingdong) and Snowball Finance (Xueqiu).
This has not been straightforward, however. Fund management companies are designed to cater to bank distributors, and are built on old-fashioned tech.
“We learned how to do digital marketing,” Lo said. “It’s very different to traditional distribution. It’s iterative, it changes fast, and you have to listen to customer feedback.” Partnering with digital channels has also required a different sense of product design, and to rebuild the company’s operational process to support round-the-clock digital sales and support.
Lo says the experience will be increasingly relevant as other markets digitalize, although they may need to be tweaked, depending on local regulation, client behavior and distributor demands. “Some things we can learn and apply elsewhere as the world goes digital,” Lo said.
The onshore funds market manages about Rmb14 trillion (almost $2 trillion) in total assets among 135 asset managers authorized to sell to retail clients, of which are 44 Sino-foreign JVs.
But most of these JVs are run by the local partner, with foreign shareholders having less influence. They are limited to stakes no greater than 49%, and local partners are often banks or other powerful institutions. One analyst told DigFin that local fund houses are not particularly bold when it comes to digital channels; and even if they are, the lessons don’t flow to the foreign partner.
But Invesco Great Wall’s case is different. Both Invesco and Great Wall Securities own 49%, with two other shareholders holding another 1% each. Given that Great Wall Securities has its own in-house funds business, it has been willing to let Invesco drive the business. (Beijing has recently permitted J.P. Morgan Asset Management to take a 51% stake in its funds J.V.) Invesco Great Wall is also among the oldest funds JVs in China. It is today led by Shenzhen-based CEO Ken Kang Le.
In China, Invesco is leading the way in digital opportunities. Elsewhere it seems to be running with the rest of the herd. In the U.S. and the U.K., it has made digital acquisitions: Jemstep, a B2B robo-advisor that services U.S. bank distributors, and Inteliflo, a British platform to support financial advisors.
“We haven’t found the right use case in Asia,” Lo said. Onboarding a digital B2B (of B2B2C) platform needs scale, but Asia is fragmented, with each market requiring its own business and compliance needs.
“Digital transformation is still evolving,” Lo said. “My guess is it can be like it is in China, where it’s a real thing that has become a major part of the industry.” But what that looks like elsewhere remains hard to know – or at least hard for justifying a business case.
New China distribution not just for money-market funds
Investors on digital platforms are beginning to look to other products, says BEA Union’s Rex Lo.
This week DigFin is highlighting three asset-management firms’ approach to digital distribution, particularly in China. We will also provide strategies from Invesco and AllianceBernstein. Go here for more insights into digital asset and wealth management.
Retail investors in China accessing funds via digital platforms are beginning to diversify away from money-market funds. That is creating opportunities to push ETFs and active funds, says Rex Lo, managing director for business development at BEA Union Investments.
China’s retail funds industry is mainly about money-market funds (MMFs). The total industry size is Rmb13.2 trillion, or $1.9 trillion, of which MMFs account for 57%, or Rmb7.7 trillion.
Among MMFs, by far the biggest player is Tianhong Asset Management, whose product, Alibaba’s Yuebao fund, is Rmb1.2 trillion in size, or $162 billion – the largest money-market fund in the world.
It’s no surprise then that digital distribution platforms in China mainly cater to MMFs. Lo says until recently, MMFs accounted for about 80% of all funds sold on digital platforms. This is propelled businesses such as Tianhong (which of course is sold via Ant Financial) and a few bank-affiliated fund houses with big MMF products, such as CCB Principal and ICBC Credit Suisse.
But it has made digital distribution of limited interest for fund houses looking to sell equity funds or other actively managed products; for them, traditional distribution via banks has remained the only viable channel.
MMFs: less big
Lo thinks this is changing, however.
The popularity of MMFs lies mainly in the fact that they offered high returns combined with guarantees, real or assumed by investors – assumptions the government has been reluctant to upset.
Yuebao and other MMFs usually invest in non-standardized wealth-management products (themselves supposedly “guaranteed”, with investors assuming a government backstop), that returned 5% to 8% to those managers. They in turn offered investors 5%, an equity-like return on what’s meant to be an ultra-safe and liquid asset class.
Over the past few years, however, Chinese banking and securities regulators have been trying to shift the funds industry onto a footing that respects risk and return, and clamping down on the supply of shadow-banking instruments available to portfolio managers.
“Today MMFs return only a little over 2%, while A shares are doing well,” Lo said. “As demand for money market funds declines, turnover has fallen, so these distributors are now promoting index or active funds.”
In recent months, Lo says, MMFs account for only 70% of sales on digital channels, with ETFs now gaining ground.
Accessing the mainland market
BEA Union is able to sell its Hong Kong-domiciled Asia fixed-income fund to Chinese retail investors through a scheme called MRF, Mutual Recognition of Funds.
This program, which began in 2015, allows fund managers on either side of the border to sell eligible products through a master-agent arrangement. Regulators in mainland China have been slow to approve such funds, however, and there are only seven Hong Kong products available via MRF, including BEA Union’s (and 48 mainland funds available for sale in Hong Kong).
Lo is hoping to take advantage of the shifting fortunes among asset classes to use digital channels to push BEA Union’s bond fund.
Platforms such as Ant Financial are requesting the fund house for more material around equities and active funds management. It’s a big, long-term commitment to investor education – especially for foreign fund managers whose ranking is low on Ant Financial and other digital platforms.
“Domestic investors want familiarity,” Lo acknowledged. “But we continue marketing because we want to be on the platform. Today it’s more for exposure than real [inflows], and ticket sizes are as small as Rmb100 ($14). But if you have 100,000 investors, that becomes a lot of money.”
The intention of this ongoing marketing is to become sufficiently well known among Ant’s users to take advantage when retail investors want to invest overseas.
New ways of doing business
Adding platforms such as Ant to traditional distribution methods has been an eye-opener, Lo says. “They don’t think like a traditional finance company. They’re a fintech, so they’re very responsive and open to new ideas. And they’re independent – they’re not a bank with its own funds J.V. – so there aren’t conflicts of interest.”
Marketing was not the only part of business that had to adjust.
“I was amazed when we began to work with these firms,” Lo said. “Enhancements that would take months to get done in Hong Kong take them a few days. We can learn a lot from working with fintechs.” It’s knowledge that will come in handy as more banks in Hong Kong and Asia add mutual funds to their mobile trading apps, as Standard Chartered did earlier this year.
There are limits, however, to how far a fund house can go selling products on mainland China’s digital platforms.
Those channels are limited to funds from either local licensed retail-facing houses, or offshore products eligible via MRF. The retail funds market in China, at $1.9 trillion, is only a fraction of the total investments industry, which is about $9.7 trillion – but that includes separate licensed businesses for asset managers linked to insurance companies, or to trusts, or to banks. Those businesses for now can’t market to retail or use sell via e-commerce players.
BEA Union is a joint venture formed in 2007 between Bank of East Asia and Germany’s Union Investments. Its initial business model was to service local pension and insurance customers, so its investment expertise has been mainly in Asian fixed income. It has since developed funds in Hong Kong and Asia equities, and its total AUM is now $11.2 billion.
It is the only foreign fund house to establish a wholly owned foreign enterprise (Woofie) in Qianhai (part of Shenzhen), as opposed to Shanghai. This was partly because the authorities in Qianhai were very welcoming, and because Bank of East Asia has a presence in southern China, and the fund house hopes to take advantage of this should cross-border opportunities emerge (under the concept of a “Greater Bay Area”).
This medium-term ambition is another driver of BEA Union’s strategy to build an online brand on Ant Financial and other digital platforms.
AllianceBernstein looks to add value to digital channels
Ajai Kaul, regional head, says the buy-side battleground is moving to banks’ evolving digital distribution.
This week DigFin is highlighting three asset-management firms’ approach to digital distribution, particularly in China. We will also provide strategies from Invesco and BEA Union Investments. Go here for more insights into digital asset and wealth management.
Asset managers need to be ready to work with banks’ digital capabilities to reach retail investors.
Ajai Kaul, the Asia ex-Japan CEO at AllianceBernstein, a $580 billion investment firm, says digital distribution remains a puzzle for the industry. Although new channels are emerging, particularly in China, asset managers will likely adapt to what their existing distributors do online.
“Banks have the capital and the captive client base,” he said. “As asset managers, we deliver a product and service the client, including their digital engagement. So we need to understand how we’re going to plug into what banks are doing.”
Over the past two decades, banks in Asia have transitioned away from supermarket approaches involving dozens of manufacturers to a core set of perhaps 20 asset managers on the shelf.
Banks represent the vast majority of sales to retail investors in the region, so asset managers remain dependent keeping these relationships. Although buy-side firms recognize the importance of “digital transformation”, in Asia at least they are waiting to see which way their distributors move.
Follow the banks
“Banks are already responding with their own digital strategies and we need to continue to engage them and plug into their platforms,” Kaul said, adding this is likely to be more around operations, education and reporting than marketing or front-office activities. “We’re having conversations now about what this might look like…I do not believe banks are about to cede customers to the digital and online service providers.”
One aspect is likely to change how asset managers support distributors with things like marketing material. This will increasingly be less about papers and statements, and more about real-time online communication. And it will change the way asset managers arm financial advisors, bank salespeople and other intermediaries with information about their products, and about investing.
“People want convenience,” Kaul said. “They’re used to instant transactions. But we need to ensure that they understand what they’re buying.”
That principle sounds simple but it’s not clear how it will materialize. Does that information get communicated at point of sale, or via a continuous stream of back-and-forth with investors? Who is responsible for education – and who finances it?
The prize for getting this right is data-driven insights that enable fund mangers to build better products, with more tailored, suitable features, be it about liquidity, or asset classes, or risk. “You can scale faster if you get a real insight,” Kaul said. “And there’s a lot of data – if you ask the right questions.”
What about direct?
Is there a point at which asset managers will also go direct to consumers?
Kaul says this could emerge as a complementary strategy, but: “We’ll always be working with banks. Wealth management and financial advice are just tools for banks, along with loans, credit cards and foreign exchange.”
In other words, banks will retain the overall customer relationship, at least as far as asset managers are concerned – although banks themselves are now eager to cement their customer relationships in the face of being themselves swallowed up into “ecosystems” dominated by consumer-facing tech platforms.
Kaul is also looking at more direct digital channels, notably in China, where AB, as the firm is known, is licensed as a private fund manager, which can raise money from professional investors but not retail.
This makes PFMs unappealing to domestic banks, which can’t sell their products to their retail clients. Most sales are institutional in nature, but digital channels are becoming relevant.
This is still however more theoretical than real for firms like AB. But Kaul and his colleagues are putting time into studying the market.
“We need to understand mobile platforms and how we engage with them, in general,” he said. “In mobile environments, we can’t just be a product on a shelf.”
The China experience
So far the majority of funds sold in China through such channels are money market funds. But platforms such as Ant Financial, EastMoney and WeChat are beginning to develop more advice-based services that will help users with financial planning.
“How does a fund manager add value?” Kaul said. “If a transaction is on a mobile phone, that’s a very small piece of visual real-estate to work with, or become prominent on.” Fund products are usually three, four or five clicks away from where users spend their time on these platforms. Foreign fund managers do not enjoy brand recognition in China. “Just being a product isn’t sufficient to win traffic,” Kaul said. “You have to present something of value that creates interaction between the user and AB.”
He says China offers a good place to begin this learning process, given the popularity of these channels for everyday use. And within the Chinese context, these digital platforms are similar – if a fund house can master one, it can adapt a similar method to the others.
What’s special about mainland China isn’t the platform so much as it’s the investor culture, which ever since the stock markets appeared in 1990, have been habituated to short-term trading.
“How we build and deliver product may not match the local wealth market, which has developed its own biases toward duration, time horizons and the purpose of investment,” Kaul said. “But the population there has fully embraced mobile platforms, as we can see by the sheer volume of transactions now taking place. China is the front line of innovation.”