In 1300 or so Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, introduced Europeans to a monetary marvel witnessed in China. The emperor, he wrote, “causes the bark of trees, made into something like paper, to pass for money all over his country”. Eventually the West also adopted paper money, some six centuries after China invented it. More recent foreign travellers to China have come back agog at the next big step for money: the total disappearance of paper, replaced by pixels on phone screens.
China’s pre-eminence in digital money is likely to be on display in the next few weeks with the monster listing of Ant Group, its largest fintech firm, in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Measured by cash raised, it will probably be the biggest initial public offering in history, beating Saudi Aramco’s last year. Once listed, Ant, which was formed in 2004, could have a similar value to JPMorgan Chase, the world’s biggest bank, which traces its roots to 1799. Ant’s rise worries hawks in the White House and enthralls global investors. It portends a bigger transformation of how the financial system works—not just in China but around the world.
Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s boss, and others have kept a wary and admiring eye on Ant for years. Spun off from Alibaba, an e-commerce firm, it has over 1bn users, mostly in China, and its payments network carried $16trn of transactions last year, connecting 80m merchants (see Briefing). Payments are just the appetiser. Users can borrow money, choose from 6,000 investment products, and buy health insurance. Imagine if main-street banks, Wall Street’s brokers, Boston’s asset managers and Connecticut’s insurers were all shrunk to fit into a single app designed in Silicon Valley that almost everyone used. Other Chinese firms, notably Tencent, which owns the WeChat app, also operate cutting-edge fintech arms.