China's outstanding loan balance reached a fresh record of CNY 172.75 trillion in 2020 and keeps growing, spurred by the increasing digitalization and booming e-commerce market.
In China, 2020 was a milestone year for fintech. The year saw heightened regulatory scrutiny, intensified competition and business patterns were altered by the COVID-19 outbreak, both in the corporate and consumer sectors. The Matthew effect in the industry has been further exacerbated under such circumstances, where small-sized companies with less capital or poor risk resistance ability will be forced to quit the stage.
Although 360 DigiTech, Inc. (QFIN:NASDAQ) is a late starter, it is one of those niche players able to stand up to this fierce competition, mainly due to the reputation of its parent company – 360 Security Technology, Inc. (601360:SH) which brings significant brand visibility to the table.
Strong performance with low valuation
This USD 6.57 billion company is currently outperforming what the market expects. On May 27, 360 DigiTech released its unaudited financial results for the first quarter of 2021. The total net revenue increased by 13.1% to CNY 3.6 billion (USD 0.55 billion) from CNY 3.2 billion in the same period of 2020, while the non-GAAP net income reached CNY 1.41 billion (USD 0.2 billion) with an astonishing increase of 452.8%. The operating income along with the account under the non-GAAP measure achieved a growth of 745.7% and 533.0%, respectively.
However, given this relatively strong financial performance, 360 DigiTech's P/E ratio appears to have been lower than that of its peers for a long time, although it is currently ranked the highest among the top four. Lexin (LX:NASDAQ), a leading online consumption and consumer finance platform, is also using technologies to encompass risk management and loan facilitation systems, just as QFIN does, but its P/E ratio is far higher than that of QFIN. For example, in the third quarter of 2020, Lexin's P/E ratio was more than 5 times that of 360 DigiTech; by Q2 2021, Lexin was lower than 360 DigiTech for the first time, at the level of 8.1. Along with the progressively upward stock price, the necessity of re-assessing 360 DigiTech is becoming more obvious.
How the asset-light business model works
360 DigiTech is one of the earliest platforms in the industry to proactively initiate the transformation of reducing the proportion of self-operated loans and improving loan facilitation. This turned out to be an informed decision.
In the third quarter of 2019, 360 DigiTech first proposed its new strategic target for adopting the 'capital-light,' or more commonly as 'asset-light' business model. More colloquially, this refers to the company directly navigating the borrower to their cooperative financial institution, while collecting service fees from credit evaluation, credit management, or other technical-related services.
According to the published unaudited financial results of 360 DigiTech for the first quarter of 2021, the total loans originated by financial institutions were CNY 74.15 billion, of which CNY 37.25 billion (50.2%) was under an asset-light model and other technology solutions, achieving an astonishing increase of 211.9% over the same period in 2020.
Haisheng Wu, CEO of 360 DigiTech, stated that "...over 50% of the loans were facilitated under the capital-light model and other technology solutions..." and it is a "fundamental change to the nature of our business, from being capital-driven to technology-driven."
The highlight of this model is that as a loan facilitator, the company is not required to inject any margin for each loan. In other words, the credit risk of the asset-light business is borne by the capital; the loan facilitator is thus riskless. Besides, it can better respond to regulatory requirements and resist the impacts of uncertainty on business stability.
Moving further towards 'tech'
In policy terms, the tightening regulatory rules pose a little impact to loan facilitators like 360 DigiTech – even as fintech giants like Ant Group and JD Digits may suffer – as its targets are excess leverage and systematic risks. It creates opportunities for 360 DigiTech to jump a queue. The asset-light model is hence the core strategy of reducing the regulatory and credit risk. Besides, QFIN is trying to use less capital and more technology-powered services to open up more opportunities, both in terms of client acquisition and risk management.
The improved portfolio quality, as indicated by the relatively low delinquency ratio, was one of the contributors for its shining performance even in the special 2020, although it showed an upward-trending slope for the period during the epidemic. However, it seems reasonable: due to the lag of loan repayment as well as its timeliness of statistics, the negative effects of China's -6.8% GDP in 2020Q1 only started to appear in the second quarter of 2020, causing a history of high non-payment ratio of 2.82%. Up to date, the company's delinquency ratio has nearly risen back to the level before COVID-19, and we will keep an eye on its future performance.
Moreover, with a few innovations and technologies, for example, Argus RM Model, Intelligence Credit Engine (ICE), Cloud Bank System, Cosmic Cube System, Apollo Platform and AI Robots, 360 DigiTech is working hard towards the 'tech side' of the fintech business as well as being technology partners with banks. The strategic collaboration with Kincheng Bank (KCB) is a good example.
The bottom line
360 DigiTech's asset-light model works well, and it has the potential to pay off from the long-term perspective, which brings further expectation for its growth prospects. The company's business expansion plans are proceeding with KCB as the first step. These strategies will further improve the company's flexibility in this competition for market share.