Analysis: China’s small tech firms step out of the shadows as giants reel from regulatory crackdown

FILE PHOTO: People wearing face masks walk on an overpass, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Beijing's tech hub Zhongguancun
FILE PHOTO: People walk on an overpass in Beijing's tech hub Zhongguancun, China February 17, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang/File Photo

March 19, 2021

By Samuel Shen and Sumeet Chatterjee

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) – One firm’s loss is another’s gain. China’s smaller technology companies and investors are eager to seize the day as a sweeping crackdown by anti-monopoly regulators on the country’s internet giants creates a wealth of new opportunities.

Nasdaq-listed microlender 360 DigiTech Inc is one such firm, having seen an increase in new business and a run-up in its share price after the introduction of new rules designed to rein in fintech giant Ant Group and other large rivals.

“Since December, we’ve seen clients whose credit lines have been reduced or restricted by lending giants transfer to our services,” 360 DigiTech Chief Financial Officer Alex Xu told Reuters.

“We can grab the market share that’s being abandoned by leading players.”

The regulatory heat began with the scuppering of Ant’s $37 billion IPO in November and has rapidly spread across the tech sector. That’s marked an end to an era of laissez faire treatment that had seen companies including Ant, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Tencent Holdings Ltd grow to dominate many aspects of Chinese consumer life.

In fintech, draft rules published in November require online platforms like Ant to put up sizable capital for co-lending. Regulations updated last month also now mean caps on lending that an online lender can conduct with an individual bank.

Hopes for a more level playing field have seen 360 DigiTech’s shares almost triple for the year to date, valuing it at nearly $5 billion. Rival LexinFintech Holdings has seen its share price more than double, valuing it at around $2.4 billion.

Both firms are online loan facilitators which recommend clients to commercial banks using credit-risk screening technologies and big data and do not commit their own capital for loans.

“Previously, the market was worried about whether they can survive… now the uncertainty lies in how much they can grow,” said Richard Xu, an analyst at Morgan Stanley who has lifted his price targets for both 360 DigiTech and Lexin.

For the broader tech sector, regulators have flagged that new rules for online transactions are in the works and have announced a probe into Alibaba over its practice of demanding that its merchants not sign up with rival platforms.

And in the past week alone, live streaming e-commerce and “deepfake” technology have come under scrutiny while 12 companies, including Baidu Inc, Tencent, and Didi Chuxing have been fined over 10 deals that violated anti-monopoly rules.

Roby Chen, founder of DaoCloud, a Shanghai-based startup that provides cloud computing services to companies, said he expects the anti-monopoly campaign to drive more clients his way.

“Previously, big companies liked to boast of strategic partnerships with Alibaba Cloud or Tencent Cloud,” he said. “Now, there’s an obvious shift in attitude.”

The crackdown has prompted New York-based investor Tom Masi to slash his holdings in Alibaba to 3.3% of his fund’s portfolio from 9.9% previously.

That’s allowed him to double down on bets in smaller payment company Yeahka Ltd and online health service provider Meinian Onehealth Healthcare Holdings Co Ltd.

“We’re realising … that (the crackdown) opens up the window for other companies to have a very nice growth rate overall,” said Masi, portfolio manager for the Emerging Wealth Strategy fund at GW&K Investment Management.

Yeahka’s shares have more than doubled this year while Meinian Onehealth’s stock has shot up 30%.

Ming Liao, founding partner of Beijing-based Prospect Avenue Capital, noted that Chinese authorities were also sending a clear message to deep-pocketed tech giants to sharply rein in investment that had too often crowded out others.

“This is good news for the whole venture capital industry because negotiations will become much easier for other investors,” he said.

(Reporting by Samuel Shen in Shaghai, Sumeet Chatterjee in Hong Kong and Cheng Leng in Beijing; Additional reporting by Josh Horwitz in Shanghai; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)