China and India are far ahead of the rest of the world in fintech adoption

The future of banking.
The future of banking.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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When it comes to the adopting the newest, digital methods for managing their personal finances, Chinese and Indian consumers are way ahead of the rest of the world. A report by consultancy EY suggests that a lot of this has to do with digital payments.

About 69% of people who are active online in China have used two or more fintech services in the past six months, and in India the share is 52%, according to EY’s survey. That compares with 42% in the UK, 33% in the US, and just 14% in Japan.

Fintech is a slippery term. JPMorgan spends more than $9 billion a year on technology, but isn’t considered a fintech firm in EY’s report. But Alipay, which is part of Jack Ma’s $360 billion online empire, makes the cut. Whatever the case, it’s a helpful way to think about the finance world, and perhaps the point is that fintech firms are more likely to trace their DNA to social networks and online markets, rather than physical bank vaults and storefront branches.

Fintech upstarts provide things like loans and investments, but much of the early uptake has been in transfers and payments. The latter has really taken off in emerging markets, where people can’t necessarily tap a full-blown suite of financial services easily. Smartphone adoption is also helping—in China penetration is high, some 20% higher than the global average.

The big players in China—Alipay and WeChat, which together have more than a billion users—enabled $2.9 trillion in digital payments last year, according to a UN study. That’s a 20-fold increase in the past four years. India’s Paytm has some 200 million registered users for its wallet service.

By comparison, US-based PayPal, which includes the person-to-person Venmo service, has about 200 million active account holders and recorded $354 billion in payment volume last year. A consortium of major banks has gathered behind a competing Venmo-killing service called Zelle, which targets about 86 million consumers (paywall).

Big western companies will probably pick up innovations from emerging economies, like tying more payment options to messenger apps and social media, and perhaps using the data collected to offer even more services. In places like China, the UN report suggests the impact is already more profound. It’s giving more people access to savings and credit. That could help power the broader economy, and also boost the standards of living for millions of ordinary people once cut off from the formal financial system.