India unseats China as Asia’s top fintech funding source

China’s massive fintech industry took a beating in recent months as the government continued to wind down online lending nationwide, rattling investor confidence.

Funding for fintech startups shrank 87.6 percent year-over-year to $192.1 million during the first quarter of 2019, a new report from data provider CB Insights shows. India, which recorded $285.6 million raised for fintech startups in the period, overtook China to be Asia’s top fundraising hub for financial technology. Both countries clocked in 29 fintech deals, suggesting a cooling investor sentiment in China which saw its height of 76 deals just three quarters ago.

cb insights china q1

Chart: CB Insights

The plunge in China has followed on the heels of tightened regulation around online lending, suggests CB Insights . Over the past few years, China has rolled out a flurry of measures to rein in financial risks arising from its fledgling online lending industry. Peer-to-peer lending, which matches an individual looking for a loan with someone looking to invest, has been the top target in a wave of government crackdowns.

This kind of service offers credit to unbanked individuals who cannot otherwise get loans in a country without a mature unified credit system. But a lack of oversight led to rampant frauds across the board. Thousands of peer-to-peer lending sites shut down due to increased regulation, which is estimated to leave as few as 300 players on the market by the end of 2019, Shanghai-based research firm Yingcai forecasted.

Like China, India’s enthusiasm for finance technology is in part a result of the country’s lack of financial infrastructure. Lending startups are gathering steam as they, like their Chinese counterparts, tailor services to the country’s large unbanked and underbanked consumers and enterprises. Moves from tech leaders are also set to send ripples through the rest of the industry. Amazon finally followed its rivals Paytm, Google Pay and PhonePe to start offering peer-to-peer payments in the country. Walmart is closely watching how Flipkart, which it bought out last year, applies data to payments solution.

cb insights china q1

Chart: CB Insights

Despite the setback in online lending, a new form of consumer-facing financing vehicle — so-called mutual aid platforms that let patients crowdfund for serious diseases — is enjoying an early boom in China, CB Insights noted in its report. As with peer-to-peer lending, internet-powered mutual aid is trying to fill gaps in a traditional industry. Though most Chinese people are part of a national public insurance scheme, surgical bills can easily bring down an average family.

The top two performers in the sector are unsurprisingly from the top two opposing camps in China’s tech world. Shuidihuzhu, which translates as “water drop mutual help” in Chinese, counts Tencent as a major investor. Users contribute as little as half a cent to a pool of funds that pays out when a patient needs financial aid. The three-year-old platform, which leverages Tencent’s billion-user WeChat messenger to sign up members, claims it has attracted 78.8 million users and paid out nearly 440 million yuan $65.34 million to more than 3,100 families so far.

Shuidihuzhu’s rival, which is called Xiang Hu Bao and means “mutual protection”, is run by Alibaba’s affiliate e-wallet Alipay. Launched only last September, the service said it had acquired over 50 million users by April and had set itself up for an ambitious goal: to reach low-income groups who can’t afford the premiums and advance payments attached to traditional health insurance and to acquire 300 million users in the next two years. That means almost a third of Alipay users, most of whom live in Chia. By the end of 2018, the digital wallet had over 1 billion annual users worldwide.

The lobbying is fast and furious as gig companies seek relief from pro-labor Supreme Court ruling

For four years, Edhuar Arellano has left his house at 7 a.m. on weekdays to drive customers around the Bay Area for Lyft and Uber . Most days, he doesn’t get home to Santa Clara until 11 p.m. On weekends, he delivers pizzas to make ends meet.

Like a lot of drivers plugging in to ride-hailing apps for work, he likes the flexibility the gig economy has offered. But given the choice, Arellano says he wishes he could just become an employee. That would get him paid vacation, benefits, overtime, his own health insurance and perhaps more say over his working conditions.

“We need to accept whatever they want,” said the 55-year-old father of two grown children. “I can’t control anything.”

That quandary is behind a ferocious battle quietly playing out in the state Capitol in the final days of the legislative session, which ends August 31. Lobbyists for ridesharing companies and the California Chamber of Commerce are scrambling to delay until next year (and the next governor’s administration) a far-reaching California Supreme Court decision that could grant Arellano’s wish — and, businesses fear, undermine the entire gig economy.

The April ruling, involving the nationwide delivery company Dynamex Operations West Inc. and its contract drivers, established a new test for enforcement of California wage laws, and made it much harder for companies in California to claim that independent contractors are not actually employees.

Though the ruling only applies to California, the state’s labor force is so huge that it has already had national impact. Shortly after the decision, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced a bill to make a version of California’s new rule the federal standard, a move that only added urgency to employers’ calls for state lawmakers to hit the pause button on implementing the ruling.

“Businesses are very concerned. The key is who’s going to be sued here in the near future,” said Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber, which represents 50,000 businesses.

They should be, says labor leader Caitlin Vega, who has been similarly lobbying Capitol Democrats to refrain from meddling and let the Supreme Court decision move forward.

“Companies have made so much money already at the expense of workers,” Vega, the legislative director of the California Labor Federation, said Tuesday during a harried break between Capitol meetings. “We really see the Dynamex decision as core to rebuilding the middle class.”

State and federal labor laws give employees a wide range of worker protections, from overtime pay and minimum wages to the right to unionize. But those rights don’t extend to independent contractors, whose ranks have grown dramatically in the gig economy.

Apps such as Uber, TaskRabbit and DoorDash, which match customers and services online and in real time, have given workers an unprecedented ability to freelance but they also have blurred traditional employer-employee relationships and, labor advocates say, invited exploitation.

Some 2 million people, from Lyft drivers to construction workers, consider themselves independent contractors in California. In 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about one in 14 workers was an independent contractor nationally.

If state lawmakers don’t rewrite the law or stall its implementation for a few months, as businesses want — which the Legislature can legally do, though the clock is ticking — the Dynamex decision will subject businesses in California to a standard that is tougher than the federal government’s or most states’.

Known as the “ABC test,” the standard requires companies to prove that people working for them as independent contractors are:

  • A) Free from the company’s control when they’re on the job;
  • B) Doing work that falls outside the company’s normal business;
  • C) And operating an independent business or trade beyond the job for which they were hired.

That’s a high bar for the many companies whose bottom lines have depended on large numbers of contractors to deliver a particular service. According to the business lobby, in the months since the Dynamex decision, law firms have received 1,200 demands for arbitration and 17 class action lawsuits.

Last month, business leaders sent a letter to members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, warning that the new test would “decimate businesses,” and urging the governor and Legislature to suspend and then limit the court’s ruling to only workers involved in the Dynamex case. The letter also asked that the decision not apply to other contractors for the next two years.

Not all those contractors are in tech, Chamber head Zaremberg points out. Emergency room doctors and accountants, for example, could also be impacted. Emergency hospitals and trauma centers contract their doctors through medical groups, and doctors generally work at a combination of hospitals and community clinics.

Photo: shapecharge / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Dr. Aimee Mullen, president of the California chapter of American College of Emergency Physicians, confirms that ER docs are among those uncertain about their contractor status.

“A lot of our members use that model. It’s choice. They like flexibility. They like working at multiple hospitals,” Mullen said.

The California Labor Federation’s Vega contends that, disruptive though it may be, the Dynamex ruling is the right one, particularly on worker exploitation. The core group affected tends to be low-income and immigrant workers, she said.

“The Dynamex decision was a victory for working people — truck drivers who are cheated out of wages, warehouse workers forced to risk their health and gig economy workers who want to be treated with dignity and respect,” Vega wrote in a Sacramento Bee op-ed.

Some workers see room for hybrid solutions. Edward Escobar, a San Francisco ride-hail driver of four years and founder of the Alliance for Independent Workers, a group formed by drivers three years ago, says he has seen a big decrease in how much these companies compensate drivers without a commensurate increase in control over working conditions.

Escobar believes gig companies are trying to have it both ways, and should give their workers either true independence or full employment. His proposal: Let workers choose their own classification, with wage and benefit protection for those who choose to be employees, and more control for contractors over which rides to take and what prices to set.

“These tech titans have been taking advantage of these gray areas,” Escobar said.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Paramount Democrat, said earlier this month that while the Legislature is eager to delve into workforce issues, leaders do not have adequate time to act on it before the session ends next week.

“The Dynamex​ decision strikes at the core of what the future of work looks like in our society,” Rendon said in a statement. “From the decline of union membership to court rulings like the Janus decision, we’ve seen the continual erosion of workers’ rights. If the Legislature is to take action, we must do so thoughtfully with that in mind. That will not happen in the last three weeks of the legislative session.”

Nor are the stakes likely to be lowered for workers like Arellano.

“If I don’t work, I have no money,” said the Lyft and Uber driver. “Everything is so expensive in Santa Clara and the Bay Area.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.