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Spend an hour any evening watching local television and you’ll soon learn that there is no shortage of money lenders in Hong Kong. From giant cats to tumbling skyscrapers, the commercials are slick and surreal, but the gloss masks the fact that the offerings are closer to payday loans than structured finance, which remains largely the preserve of Hong Kong’s many banks.
Over the last year or two, however, a group of digital marketplaces have got tongues wagging in the city’s trade finance sector. Taking advantage of technological advancements which allow for efficient client on-boarding and disbursement of funds, these platforms are seeking to match the chronically underserved, 330,000-strong SME sector in Hong Kong with a bunch of yield-hungry investors seeking a low-risk, regular return.
These invoice financing platforms are not reinventing the wheel: they’re offering products and services which are available in most places, but which have been strangely short on supply of late in Hong Kong, which is held up to be a premier hub for trade and finance.
Invoice financing allows businesses to borrow money against the amounts due from customers. The platforms springing up in Hong Kong and elsewhere allow businesses to list their invoices on a marketplace, where they are matched with professional investors, who pay the outstanding invoice at a discounted rate. The seller has had their invoice payment advanced, minus interest, while the investor makes a yield, with the going rate in Hong Kong anywhere from 8% to 18%, annualised.
“The basics of the concepts behind these platforms have been around forever. Whether that is in the form of factoring, invoice discounting or even supply chain finance. All of which tend to be offered by either bank or specialist factor,” says Jolyon Ellwood Russell, a Hong Kong-based trade finance partner at law firm Simmons & Simmons.
“However, it is no secret that banks are pulling back on traditional banking products as costs outrun the attractiveness of such products. So financing opportunities are opening up. Add this together with the use of technology and a platform that makes the whole process of listing and tracking an invoice far easier,” he explains.
As is often the case, the emergence of these non-bank financiers can be traced back to the global financial crisis and the subsequent capital holding requirements that were enforced.
That banks beat a hasty retreat from emerging markets post-2008 is well-known, but even in a developed market like Hong Kong, the crash starved SMEs of capital. Those that wish to take a bank loan are often asked to collateralise property in exchange: an onerous requirement in most places, but even more unrealistic in a place where the average new home costs US$1.7mn and where a workstation costs more than US$27,000 to hire per year. This is collateral that, for most small companies, doesn’t exist.
Furthermore, the barriers to entering Hong Kong’s market are enormous. As well as the exorbitant rent, much of the talent is absorbed by the monolithic mainstream financial sector. When Andy Chan and co-founder Winston Wong launched Qupital as graduates in 2016, Chan tells GTR that his meagre budget had him eating at McDonald’s every day. “We were lucky to find angel investors early on, but we were still living on a shoestring for the first 12 months,” he says.
Hong Kong fintech startups can only dream of the thousands of square feet in office space lavished upon their peers in Singapore by the government there, and while those that survive tend to be hardy and resilient, there are many more that don’t live to tell the tale.
It is interesting, then, that each of the four companies interviewed for this story has senior staffers that have previously worked at much larger companies in the sector.
The Hong Kong fintech scene is unforgiving, but these companies are attempting to fill a gap in the market that is as lucrative as it is gaping.
When he worked in banking, Anson Suen could see the levels of indifference towards SME customers first hand.
“If I am on-boarding you as a client and you’re requiring a HK$10mn line, the frontline staff don’t have a lot of incentive to expedite the process, because they have larger clients to take care of. The layers of approval process and inefficiencies in the banks don’t allow SMEs to enjoy bank services. Collateral is one issue, but also ticket size. For an invoice as low as HK$100,000, the bank would tell you to go somewhere else,” he tells GTR in an office tucked up on the 11th storey on a busy downtown street.
At Fundpark, he finds himself with a different set of issues. Whereas “Hong Kong Bank”, as locals call HSBC, is a household name, populating an invoice financing platform requires a lot of groundwork. Small businesses have to be convinced that this is a viable way of raising money, while investors have to be sourced to fund the invoices.
“There’s a lot of money on the street but trade and invoice financing is not something they’ve known here. The reason it is not established as a market is the education of the SMEs. Traditional SMEs, when they think of financing, they think of banks. They see financing in general as a package from banks. But we now see the second generation of companies, new entrepreneurs coming up in the trading sector. The internet of things, consumer electronics, marketing companies, they’re more open to this kind of idea,” he says.
Currently, the platform has more than 130 SMEs listed, and while Suen is not keen to disclose the total volume of invoices financed, he says the company is growing its turnover by 80% a month. Fundpark has enlisted Alan Lee, a senior commodities banker who led teams at HSBC and Standard Chartered, as senior trade consultant and with this team in place, Suen says their strong suit is attracting SMEs to the platform.
Suen adds: “We don’t have a strong capital market background, but we’re strong in the deal flow pipeline, we speak the same language as the SMEs. So we’re stronger on the supply side, but of course we are continuing to grow our funder base. We started with individual funders and now we have more corporate funders onboard. We have more assets than funders, the funding was the bottleneck in 2017, but starting in 2018, we are getting more traction.”
Over a coffee in Qupital’s headquarters in Lai Chi Kok, north Kowloon, Andy Chan also discusses the lack of awareness of the product they are offering SMEs. “A lot of people didn’t know they could use their invoices to get financing. I feel like it wasn’t a product that was pushed a lot by the banks,” he says.
As with the other companies interviewed for this article, Qupital works only with professional investors, which is part of what separates these platforms from the crowdfunding craze in Mainland China. In Hong Kong, this means individuals with HK$8mn (about US$1.02mn) in a portfolio, and corporations with over HK$40mn in assets.
Qupital acts as the escrow agent in the middle of a transaction, holding the invoice in trust while the seller (a company) finds a buyer (an investor). “The funders bid on the invoice. If it’s a HK$100 invoice, some may be willing to pay HK$96, some HK$98. The HK$98 will win, then they transfer the money to Qupital, which will transfer to the seller,” Chan explains. The seller is able to set the desired price of the invoice, but must be realistic, otherwise it will have an unsold option.
In 2017, Qupital made headlines when it became home to the first fintech investments in Hong Kong from both Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund and MindWorks Ventures – big names in the Asian venture capital scene. The US$2mn equity stake allowed them to build the team. But the stream of Hong Kong-based sellers on the Alibaba platform was arguably even more valuable.
While Alibaba expanded its TMall e-commerce platform to Hong Kong last year, its flagship lending arm, Ant Financial, mainly services Mainland Chinese companies. There are, therefore, huge numbers of Hong Kong-based trading companies without access to the same kind of finance as their Chinese peers.
“A lot of Alibaba’s products are tied to the Mainland. We can bring quick growth, that we’ve proven, in a niche market. They’re probably looking at bigger things in e-commerce and payment solutions, rather than trade finance for small businesses with less than US$20mn turnover,” Chan says of the e-commerce giant’s interest in Qupital.
In under two years, nearly HK$300mn of invoices have been funded on Qupital’s platform, with an average margin of 12%, annualised. The company is growing well, but this is only a drop in the ocean compared with the amount of SME financing required across the market. For this reason, Chan thinks that further competition in the space would be healthy.
“It’s been the same two or three [in competition]. But more would be good, we need to educate the market. If you’re the only one selling the product, maybe it’s only you that’s interested. Look at the example of Tesla: it allows everyone to know how to create electric cars, they open source their engineering. That allows the market to gain more knowledge and it helps everyone to move from gas to electric,” Chan says, suggesting that by working independently to fund SMEs, the erstwhile competitors will help the market grow.
Over the space of a quarter-century, Robert Lin has been borrower, lender and facilitator, in his roles in trading, banking and fintech. Now, after all his years in trade finance, it is finally attracting some mainstream attention.
“Definitely over the last two, three years, there’s been more interest from the investor side. Everybody is looking for yield. Trade and receivables finance has got more of the spotlight. People see it as fairly low-risk, non-correlated to the markets, and yet with reasonably attractive yields. With inflation becoming a hotter topic, trade and receivables are Libor adjusted, it stays up with inflation,” he tells GTR in a phone interview.
Seabury TFX provides an entry point for investors who wish to access this market. The biggest challenge to entering has been scale, Lin explains. As an investor looking to deploy US$10mn, you would have to trawl through 400 invoices just to find the ones you are willing to finance, given that the average cross-border invoice size is around US$20,000. Technology provides a solution to this and allows for these invoice financing platforms to collate.
“We provide a bridge for investors to get access into trade and receivables,” he explains. “A traditional hedge fund investor doesn’t have the operation to take on that, or the relationships. Working with originators like ourselves can accomplish that. Most of the companies we work with have about US$20mn and up in sales. We have some multi-billion dollar corporates on the supply side. Where technology exists we can comfortably tap into their transaction data.”
Lin launched EastWest Capital in 2012 as a supply chain finance provider, which operated SCFExchange.com. Barely a year later, it was bought by Seabury Capital, a US company specialising in capital financing, particularly aviation. The rebranded Seabury TFX has a bigger book than its competitors and is targeting US$500mn in volume this year. The average value of a financing (as well as invoices, Seabury funds the pre-shipment stage) on the platform is US$25,000, with company limits range from US$50mn to US$500mn.
“Trade has always existed and yet when you talk about receivables funding, invoice discounting, it’s not something most are familiar with. The interest really started after the financial crisis when the banks pulled back. But for the SME sector there’s been a difficulty in obtaining finance. People are looking for other solutions,” Lin says.
Vittorio de Angelis, the co-founder of invoice financing platform Velotrade, suggests that the market wasn’t stagnant solely through a lack of funding. It’s a widely-held view that “factoring” was considered a dirty word in Asia until very recently. Even now, old habits are dying hard.
“We’ve noticed an attitude shift in the short time we’ve been in the space. Before it was like: ‘Oh my god they’re painting my door red because I owe money to people.’ Now it’s just one of the tools that SMEs can use to get finance,” de Angelis tells GTR in his office at Cyberport, one of the few facilities in Hong Kong which offers concessionary rates to fintech companies.
De Angelis and his partner Gianluca Pizzituti ended up in the trade finance space almost by accident. An investment banker by trade, he was head of the equity derivatives desk at Louis Capital Markets in Hong Kong before somebody approached him with a proposition.
“I didn’t have a clue,” he says when asked what his impression of trade finance was 10 years ago. “Investment banking is a very intensive job, you spend 12 hours a day in front of your screen trading and seldom have the opportunity to step back and look at the bigger picture. This all happened by chance, we bumped into somebody who introduced us to the world of trade finance, we stumbled upon it.”
The initial business model was to use their own capital to purchase goods from China and then sell the goods to western buyers. That helped acquaint them with the space and made them aware of the potential market there was for invoice financing in the region.
“Gianluca and I come from an investment banking background, and we were pricing deals for clients at 10-15 basis points per annum. All of a sudden we found wholesalers in Europe ready to pay 5% to 15% rates in order to secure funding. We realised there was a big market dislocation. We knew where the money was, and it couldn’t be placed at any meaningful level of yield because of quantitative and other economic reasons. On the other side, we see a very solid transaction because it’s insured, there’s recourse to the seller, there’s a whole set of safety nets in place that made the trade a good asset,” he explains.
Arguably, the advantage Velotrade has on rival firms is the access to institutional investors, borne out of years working in that sector.
“The interest is massive. Our ambition is to create a new asset class. Everybody is craving yield and this is an asset class that’s been monopolised by traditional financial institutions for 2,000 years. Because of fintech, our ability to process deals in a more efficient manner than other players, we can open this asset class to new investors,” he says.