With Bairong’s shares slumping up to 16% on debut last week, one might start wondering if the global sell-off in China fintech stocks is far from over. Even the shares of popular video sharing portal Bilibili traded at a slight discount at market close on the first day of its secondary Hong Kong listing. The decline in technology shares follows a massive USD 30 billion liquidation of US and China tech stocks related to margin calls defaults by investment firm Archegos Capital Management, as well as an announcement by US regulators to adopt the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, which basically requires US-listed Chinese companies to come clean on their ultimate shareholding structure or be delisted. Last year, China also pulled the plug on Ant Financial’s IPO, which many said was an initiative by authorities to further regulate the fintech and broader banking space.
If the lackluster IPOs of Bairong and Bilibili are harbingers of what to expect in the fintech and tech industries, then investors will want to watch the upcoming Linklogis IPO closely. Unlike Bairong, which offers more consumer-focused products, Linklogis operates within the B2B supply chain space. Both are technology service providers, boasting the application of advanced and cutting edge capabilities such as artificial intelligence, big data, complex algorithms, natural language processing, and blockchain.
Are AI, blockchain, and cloud technology real differentiators?
The ABCs of today’s internet economy—AI, blockchain, and cloud—have been increasingly embraced as the new normal by major global economies, even within the banking and insurance space. To a certain extent, they have even become a benchmark of being ahead of the curve, partly attributed to how these are portrayed in the media and the endorsements of influential industry players.
In 2017, a little known US-based beverage company’s value rebranded itself to focus on fintech, resulting in its share price increasing by over 200% overnight. In that same year, another British company also added the word “Blockchain” to its corporate name and saw its share price skyrocketing 400%, although they were simply investors in internet and information businesses.
These are certainly more extreme and sensational examples, but the point here is that this jargon seems overly used as a means to increase the market value of businesses dramatically or obfuscate their underlying business models.
These days, the keywords “AI,” “blockchain,” and “cloud” can almost always be found in the corporate presentation decks of any fintech company. These are great technologies for any business operating in the digital economy, but do they necessarily create a competitive moat? This is still the key question: Beyond the nice-looking charts and jargon, are investors savvy enough to evaluate a company based on its fundamentals and long-term outlook?
Looking beyond the fintech frenzy
Amid the trading frenzy in fintech stocks and the anticipation of Linklogis’ upcoming IPO, one company in the fintech space seems to have been cruising along quietly under the radar.
Sheng Ye Capital, a Shenzhen-based, Hong Kong-listed fintech company that operates within the supply chain space, has recently also pivoted to focus on deepening its technology leadership with its Dual-Engine, One-Platform initiative announced earlier this year. Like Linklogis, Sheng Ye Capital uses AI-powered technologies such as NLP and optical character recognition on its platform. According to its corporate presentation, the company even uses a cloud-based video surveillance system installed on construction sites to verify underlying financial transactions.
Although Linklogis and Sheng Ye Capital coexist in the supply chain sector, their business models are quite different. Linklogis is a software-as-a-service provider. Its revenue model is largely based on offering a full stack solution to optimize the workflow for supply chain financing and payments. Sheng Ye Capital offers SaaS solutions as well, but processes the data acquired, turning it into actionable insights to provide customized factoring solutions.
Given the take rates of the SaaS market, Linklogis relies on a volume-based model with a large spread of anchor enterprises and financial institutions. The competitive landscape is incredibly cutthroat, given that most of the underlying technology used in enterprise software systems aren’t exactly rocket science. Sheng Ye Capital, however, derives its profit from the spread between the interest rates charged to clients over its cost of funds, and leverages its loan book for providing factoring services mainly to SMEs. In Linklogis’ case, the concept of a loan book is irrelevant, as they do not partake in the financial risks relating to supply chain financing activities.
Loan books aside, both companies differ in terms of the sectors they focus on. Based on Linklogis’ prospectus, the company serves “anchor enterprises” in several broad areas, including “real estate, energy, construction, pharmaceutical, manufacturing, among others.” Sheng Ye Capital, on the other hand, has chosen to focus on three industries: infrastructure, medical, and energy. While there are benefits in sector diversification, Sheng Ye Capital’s apparently narrow focus is a reflection of the resilience in these three sectors and its strategic value to China’s economic growth and stability. More importantly, perhaps, is the company’s experience in these sectors and the ability to effectively navigate the nuances on the ground. All these factors, augmented with its platform data analytics, make up its proprietary credit and risk management framework.
Given the current excitement in the tech space and Linklogis’ billion-dollar offering, it would be surprising to see Sheng Ye Capital go unnoticed given the company’s somewhat similar SaaS platform, its 40–50% net profit margin, and impressive user growth rates demonstrated over the past four years.
Huge market potential in China’s fintech and supply chain market
Notwithstanding the heightened domestic regulatory scrutiny and geopolitical overhang of Chinese tech stocks listed in the US, the outlook for fintech and industrial digitalization should remain bright. In China’s recent Two Sessions, the government reiterated its support and push for further innovation and digitalization.
Any business with a presence in China understands and appreciates the tremendous growth potential of policy-backed industrial digitalization. The benefits of this are also clear. Even with the brutal impact of the pandemic in 2020, thanks to the prioritization of digital connectivity, support for the SME segment, and the progressive rollout of infrastructure development over the years, China was probably the only country globally to have registered growth in 2020, based on data from the IMF.
Behind this engine of growth is the government’s relentless support for the economy. According to a report by Moody’s, one of the key focus areas following the onset of the coronavirus was to develop “new infrastructure,” “upgrade manufacturing industries,” and “develop advanced technologies.” The total investment earmarked for this massive initiative was estimated to be RMB 43 trillion, representing about half of the country’s annual GDP.
The pandemic has also accelerated the adoption of technology in many enterprises across China, and transformed the way finance and banking is being done in the B2B space. This demand, coupled with strong government support, is expected to fuel growth in the sector, benefiting all players across the supply chain financing ecosystem.
The debut of Linklogis on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange could just be the start of increasing interest in China’s supply chain and industrial fintech space, as investors seek new growth opportunities beyond the already pricey and popular household technology giants.
The author is a founding partner and director of cross-border investment and advisory firm IJK Capital Partners.