Grassland: Filling a Gap in China’s Microcredit Industry

By Radhika Shroff and Alice Tang

Liping Li sells a line of medicinal products made from donkey hide gelatin, helps customers in Songshan district, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, China May 10, 2013. ( Photograph by Rohanna Mertens )

Liping Li, a client of Accion Microcredit Company, sells a line of medicinal products.

The micro credit industry in China today is as diverse as it is large, and yet the country’s 56 million micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) remain largely under or unserved. These businesses account for approximately 90% of all enterprises in China and serve as the engine for the country’s growth. So why aren’t they better served by China’s financial players?

The space is made up of three key categories: micro credit companies (MCCs), which are regulated differently from one province to the next; peer-to-peer (P2P) companies which are currently unregulated; and high-profile internet finance companies associated with tech giants like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

The number of micro credit companies (MCCs) is now close to 9,000, reaching almost $150 billion in outstanding portfolio. Peer-to-peer lending (P2P) companies, continue to grow in numbers (now estimated close to 2,500) and outreach, despite some relatively high-profile cases of fraud. Internet finance companies, riding the back of a booming ecommerce business, are driving innovation in payments and products for a population increasingly mobile savvy and active on the internet. Yet demand remains sizable.

Enter Grassland Finance.

A Hong Kong-based holding company, Grassland Finance aims to found or invest in financial service institutions in China that provide loans, credit and other financial services to China’s vast numbers of MSMEs, serving a broad range of clients across the credit spectrum. Today, the company owns three microcredit companies, or MCCs (two are wholly owned, and one is a joint venture, with Grassland holding 80%), and is pursuing a number of other innovative business models to achieve scale and outreach. The first MCC acquired by Grassland was Accion Microcredit Company (AMC), which Accion launched in 2009 as the first foreign-owned MCC in Inner Mongolia and only the second in all of China. Three years after launching AMC, Accion embarked on an expansion strategy with its new partner, Sagamore Investments, by establishing Grassland.

Wangjxin Chen cooks in his restaurant in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, China May 8, 2013. ( Photograph by Rohanna Mertens )

AMC client Wangjxin Chen cooks in his restaurant in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, China.

Regulatory Challenges

The Chinese government recently released draft regulations to govern the online P2P industry, which has historically had extremely low barriers to entry. In contrast, MCCs have always been highly regulated with inherent and systemic barriers to foreign investment, growth and scale. Key regulatory restrictions include:

  • Licensing: Most MCC investors must obtain a special license from district, city and provincial governments. The licenses themselves have strict geographic limitations (often only giving the operator the ability to serve clients in one or two districts) after which additional licenses must be obtained. Each license requires protracted negotiations before an official approval can be granted, often taking multiple years. Besides operating license, MCCs’ access to the country’s central credit bureau is subject to further review and approval by the central bank, which adds to their operational difficulties.
  • Capital Requirements: Most provinces in China require high upfront registered capital for MCCs ranging anywhere from US$3mm to US$32mm. The upfront capital requirement makes it difficult for a start-up MCC to use its capital efficiently, and many struggle with depressed initial returns on equity due to the quantity of idle cash.
  • Leverage Limitations: Lending businesses rely on the efficient use of capital, which requires a mixture of debt and equity. Most provinces in China have strict shareholding requirements and leverage limitations, particularly for MCCs with foreign ownership. The most leverage allowed by any province is 2-3 times, which is highly conservative when compared to leverage limits of 5-6 times for similar credit-only institutions in other Asian countries. With these limitations, many MCCs are forced to fund their businesses with increasing amounts of equity. Further, local debt is difficult, if not impossible to obtain.
  • Local Partners: Often, provincial governments identify and select a local partner for a foreign investor who wants to establish an MCC. This may be done without any opportunity of mutual due diligence, thus potentially creating issues in expectations for business model, negotiations, and governance.

These factors cause the micro credit industry in China to be extremely fragmented with over 8,500 MCCs across the country. Many of those simply lend to suppliers and friends with no ambition or capacity of growing overall portfolio or client numbers. Significant room for even more MCCs remains and hundreds are established every year to serve the underserved or unserved MSMEs, with their need for a wide range of financial services.

Yuhua Wang in her laundry shop called "Self Reliance" in Pingzhuang, Inner Mongolia, China May 9, 2013. ( Photograph by Rohanna Mertens )

AMC client Yuhua Wang in her laundry shop called “Self Reliance.”

Grassland Finance’s Strategy

Grassland’s strategy is to combat some of the inefficiencies inherent to China’s micro credit industry, which make it difficult for players to scale their operations.

Establishing a Shared Service Platform

Established as a holding company, Grassland’s structure allows a group of MCCs to unify under one “head office” so each MCC operates essentially as a branch office. A shared service platform has been developed within the structure, where the head office sets up standard operating procedures across three MCC branches and shares senior management for all operations.

This structure allows Grassland to standardize operations and increase operational efficiencies, particularly the credit review process. The head office issues operating procedures and credit policies, conducts credit reviews at the headquarter level for certain SME loans, and provides knowledge sharing more effectively.

Partnering with Trusts

Grassland’s team has identified a partnership with the China Foreign Economy and Trade Trust Company (“FOTIC”), a trust subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned enterprise that has the ability to act as a channel for credit products. Trust companies in China are unique by international standards as they are primarily engaged in two businesses: 1) providing financing to relatively high risk borrowers with investor funding, and 2) providing a conduit to banks and other financial institutions that are restricted from investing into certain asset classes. A trust license is the only financial license in China that can invest in a wide range of asset classes including money market, capital markets and unlisted assets such as loans.

By using the FOTIC channel, Grassland is able to circumvent geographic restrictions to reach MSMEs located in any part of China. Grassland remains responsible for sourcing potential clients, reviewing loan applications, and bearing all risks associated with the loans, as they are issued through FOTIC with Grassland’s own capital and will remain on Grassland’s balance sheet, but Grassland only needs to establish representative offices in new cities to expand. Additionally, Grassland can potentially obtain funding from FOTIC in the future once it has developed a proven track record and will be able to act as a loan agent for sourcing and reviewing applications for FOTIC for off-balance sheet lending.

The partnership saves the Grassland team from devoting themselves to the very time-consuming legal work of obtaining MCC licenses while still allowing Grassland to reach more clients. Without the obligation to follow the high registered capital requirements for each MCC entity, Grassland is able to allocate its financial resources elsewhere.

Wenjie Li, supermarket owner in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, China May 8, 2013. ( Photograph by Rohanna Mertens )

Wenjie Li, supermarket owner in Chifeng and AMC client.

Leveraging WeChat and Alipay

Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba have leveraged their strong internet presence while expanding their businesses into financial services. Grassland incorporates services and applications developed by Tencent and Alibaba’s finance arm, Ant Financial, to increase engagement and improve user experience.

Grassland has adopted Tencent’s instant messenger application, WeChat, as another channel for communicating with existing clients as well as a marketing tool to attract potential clients, as WeChat is reported to have 650 million monthly active users in China. With WeChat, Grassland can connect and engage with potential and existing clients in a more personal way, and existing clients can stay up to date on their loan status and repayment schedule.

Through Alipay, which has over 600 million monthly active users in China, existing clients can choose to make loan repayments through their Alipay accounts, which are linked directly to their bank accounts as.

Online Platform Growth

As internet penetration continues to increase in China, Grassland has established an online portal, Grassland Online!, to solicit loan applications. Meanwhile, the platform allows existing clients to check their loan status and repayment schedule.

Shuhua Chen makes steamed buns and Chinese wraps at her shop in Qianjin village, Pingzhuang county, Inner Mongolia, China May 9, 2013. ( Photograph by Rohanna Mertens )

AMC client Shuhua Chen makes steamed buns and Chinese wraps at her shop in Qianjin village.

Exploring M&A Opportunities

In most contexts, an active roll up or acquisition strategy would seem appropriate with 8,500 operating MCCs and a fragmented market. Grassland quickly realized, however, that most local players are not seeking scale, majority investment, or any change in management. Due to the small scale of their businesses, they do not lack capital. Given this, Grassland is opportunistically seeking investments in, or acquisitions of, existing and like-minded MCCs. In addition, Grassland is seeking partnerships and investments that would leverage financial technologies to expand outreach more efficiently at a larger scale. Besides operational track record and financial performance, mission alignment is also an important area that Grassland examines while evaluating potential targets, given Grassland’s vision of creating a financially inclusive ecosystem in China that provides MSMEs better access to economic opportunities.

Looking forward

The Chinese government’s recent efforts to regulate the rapidly-developing P2P companies will require those players to align themselves with regulated financial institutions to continue operating and working to close the financing gap for MSMEs in China. However, a significant financing need remains, given the economy’s size and diversity. Credit providers like Grassland are still very much needed to assess the credit profiles of “difficult” clients, who are usually underserved or unserved by both traditional banking institutions and the peer-to-peer lending industry, and lend as appropriate.

With the new and innovative channels that Grassland is exploring, we remain confident that Grassland will be able to expand its reach quickly and effectively. We are hopeful for Grassland’s future as a leading provider of credit to MSMEs in China.

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