China’s financial sector used to be famous for its poor service and imperviousness to innovation. Even today, when customers go to make a transaction at one of the country’s big state-run banks, they often take a bag of snacks with them—they know they’re in for a long wait. But things are changing fast in the Middle Kingdom. A new generation of digital finance firms is taking the country—and the global markets—by storm in everything from digital payments and micro-lending to insurance and wealth management. How will China’s lumbering state-run banks react? Will tightening regulation nip this revolution in the bud?
In the eyes of insiders, if you are not talking about “AI and Finance,” then you risk being left behind–just as stubborn holdouts in another era were stranded when they failed to accept the Internet. Traditionally, finance has had two core functions: to lower transaction costs and to improve asset pricing. The use of the Internet has undermined the first by enabling more direct transactions, and AI is now disrupting the second by improving the speed and accuracy of asset pricing. Threatened by this are services like asset allocation, investment advisory and insurance pricing, which affects not only banks, but also investment and insurance firms.
Bitcoin, a virtual currency traded online, was not invented in China, yet China is where 80% of the virtual “coins” are minted and 90% of the transactions are made. Currently, the global bitcoin market amounts to some $14.5 billion, roughly the same amount of money as Apple’s European back taxes. If the virtual currency’s popularity continues to grow, decisions made by Chinese investors and regulators may determine whether bitcoin fades to a historical footnote, like Napster or the eight-track tape, or becomes the silicon cornerstone of a new global financial order. A combination of factors thrust China into this decisive role.
Ten years from now, business historians will offer a number of reasons financial services had changed so radically since 2016, from general advances in technology to the regulatory reaction to the crash of 2008. But one factor appears likely to stand out above all the others: the blockchain, a distributed database that serves as the backend of the virtual currency Bitcoin. Today, financial services are investing billions in blockchain technology. Many believe it will lead to a radical simplification of banking and payment systems everywhere—a world where money and other assets take nanoseconds to transfer, cannot be lost or stolen, and require no intermediaries to process.
For consumers in mature markets, the financial technology boom doesn’t seem very exciting. What they’ve seen so far is technology that shaves a few minutes off an efficient process, such as being able to deposit a check by taking a picture of it instead of going to the ATM. But for parts of the world where people still buy and sell things with banknotes, the FinTech boom is likely to be a major event with important economic consequences.
From the crash of 1929 to around 1981, banking was generally considered a fairly dreary business. And between now and 2025, banking seems likely to undergo a digitally driven transformation that will change how we save, spend, borrow and invest. Even as regulators do their best to try to make banking a boring business again, and politicians still vow to rein in the “banksters”, a number of well-financed start-ups look poised to reinvent almost every aspect of finance—and could even make banking sexy once more. First we look at how regulators’ push and FinTech’s pull may be setting the stage for some dramatic changes.