Vanguard gave up on mutual funds in China, but it may have found a different way into the market

A logo of Ant Group is pictured at the headquarters of the company, an affiliate of Alibaba, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 29, 2020.
Aly Song | Reuters

BEIJING — Vanguard’s experiment with financial technology in China is showing early signs of success.

In less than a year, more than 1 million users have signed up for “BangNiTou,” a smartphone-based investment advisory product run through the American mutual fund giant’s joint venture with Alibaba-affiliate Ant Group.

That’s according to a release from BangNiTou on Thursday, just four days after Vanguard said it would drop its own pursuit of a mutual fund license in China. Instead, the company plans to focus on its partnership with Ant.

Ant operates Alipay — one of the two dominant mobile payment apps in China — on which BangNiTou sits.

The Vanguard-branded product means “help you invest” in Chinese and launched in April 2020. It is a form of robo-advising, automated financial planning that uses data analytics to determine how a customer should invest based on factors such as age and income.

While such automated investing products have surged in popularity in the U.S., the concept of personal finance — whether through human or automated advisors — is still far less common in China. Most locals save heavily for an investment in the housing market or for medical treatment in the case of severe illness. That’s partly the result of limited rollout of health insurance, stock market volatility and high minimums for fund investment.

For BangNiTou, the minimum investment is 800 yuan ($123), roughly 10% of the officially reported average monthly wage in cities.

In July, Vanguard told the Financial Times that new customers were allocating a significantly higher amount, about $1,575 on average for a total of $315 million in assets across 200,000 users. Updated figures weren’t available.

Ant holds the majority stake

“While BangNiTou’s number of users has been increasing rapidly, the fund investment advisory market in China is still at a nascent stage with significant potential for further growth,” Peter Zhang, CEO of the Vanguard joint venture with Ant, said in a statement.

Foreign financial institutions received a long-awaited green light last year to take full ownership of local Chinese businesses in futures, mutual fund management and securities. It’s not clear what rules might apply in financial technology, or fintech.

Vanguard’s joint venture with Ant launched in late 2019. Ant holds the majority stake at 51%, according to Chinese business database Qichacha.

The Alibaba-affiliated company claims about 1 billion users worldwide. It became an early player in China’s wealth management industry with its Alipay-linked money market fund “Yu’e bao,” which had around 1.7 trillion yuan in assets under management at its peak in early 2018.

Late last year, Chinese authorities abruptly suspended Ant’s plans for what would have been the largest initial public offering to date. Beijing has subsequently increased its regulation on fintech and said the industry should be subject to the same rules as banks.

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