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Why China’s Payment Apps Give U.S. Bankers Nightmares

Thousands of wallets are buried in a glass box to raise awareness of mobile payments in Shanghai, China. Source: VCG/Getty Images

Jennifer SuraneJennifer Surane and
Christopher CannonChristopher Cannon

May 23, 2018

Wandering the streets of Shanghai to admire the architecture, the head of one of the largest U.S. consumer banks recently found himself surrounded by a gaggle of teenagers.
Entranced by their phones, they hardly made way for the banker. The teens were messaging, shopping and sending money back and forth, all without cash. Instead, they were using Alipay and WeChat.
The scary thing for the American: Banks never got a cut.
The future of consumer payments may not be designed in New York or London but in China. There, money flows mainly through a pair of digital ecosystems that blend social media, commerce and banking—all run by two of the world’s most valuable companies. That contrasts with the U.S., where numerous firms feast on fees from handling and processing payments. Western bankers and credit-card executives who travel to China keep returning with the same anxiety: Payments can happen cheaply and easily without them.

Chinese vs. U.S. Payment Systems

Americans more typically involve banks and cards when paying with apps

Paycheck is deposited into employee’s bank account
Consumer transfers money into their wallet at Alibaba’s Alipayor Tencent’s WeChat Pay app in order to…

Paycheck is deposited into employee’s bank account

Consumer uses debit card to shop, or…
Consumer uses credit card to shop, or…
Send money to peers with Zelle

Consumer uses bank account, debit or credit card to fund their wallet at PayPal Apple, Google, Samsung, etc. in order to…
Pay friends or family with Venmo
Shop online at stores accepting wallet
Shop at brick & mortar stores accepting wallet
Some retailers like Starbucks have their own wallet

Shop online at many Chinese e-tailers
Send money to friends or family

Shop at brick & mortar stores
Transfer money abroad or make purchases on vacation

Source: Bloomberg reporting

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. created Alipay in 2004 to let millions of potential customers who lacked credit and debit cards shop on its vast online marketplace. Tencent Holdings Ltd., similarly, debuted its payments function in 2005 in a bid to keep users inside its messaging system longer.
Alipay and WeChat have since swelled in popularity, boasting 520 million and 1 billion monthly active users, respectively. Consumers sent more than $2.9 trillion inside the two systems in 2016, equivalent to about half of all consumer goods sold in China, according to the payments consultancy Aite Group.
In contrast, U.S. consumers still rely on banks for most non-cash payments—whether it’s by check, debit, credit or a growing number of other payment systems tied to their bank accounts. Connected to that is a universe of wallets and payments systems operated by the likes of PayPal Holdings Inc., Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. From the perspective of merchants, too much of the U.S. system siphons off enormous amounts of money.

Transaction Breakdown

In a typical $100 credit card purchase…

Goes to the merchant

Issuing bank

Payment processor

Acquiring bank

Card network

How That $100 Credit Card Purchase Is Processed

Established players face potential disruption


Mobile devices

New payment companies
(Square, PayPal)

Makes a credit card purchase

Authorizes transaction



Provides point-of-sale


Payment processor
(Verifone, NCR)

Independent Sales Organizations (ISOs)
Set up businesses to accept credit cards

Requests authorization for

Bills cardholder

Authorizes transaction, keeps in acquiring fees and pays merchant $97.25

Paid remainder of merchant fee

Acquiring bank
(Chase, Bank of America, First Data, Vantiv)

Requests authorization

Keeps in network fees

Fees add up to about $90 billiona year in the U.S.

Supplies consumers with credit cards to make purchases

Card network
(Visa, Mastercard)

Approves transaction and transfers money, keeps $2.20 in interchange fees

Requests authorization

Issuing Bank
(Capital One, etc.)

Sources: Glenbrook Partners, Plaid, BI Intelligence

For now, no company in the U.S. commands the kind of clout that Alipay and WeChat wield back home. Instead, everyone is trying to replicate their success.
“This is going to be the battle of all time—like who dominates all those services—and it’s still not known,” Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., told his company’s investors in February. “Everyone wants to be the place that is the one place you go to do that.”
The nightmare for the U.S. financial industry is that a technology company—whether from China or a homegrown juggernaut such as Inc. or Facebook Inc.—replicates the success of Alipay and WeChat in America. The stakes are enormous, potentially carving away billions of dollars in annual revenue from major banks and other firms. What follows is a breakdown of what that could look like—theoretically—using the explosive growth as China’s apps as a rough guide.
Perhaps the clearest opportunity lies in siphoning off some of the fees that U.S. merchants pay to accept cards and mobile payments—about $90 billion a year, according to the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter. That money gets parceled out to card networks such as Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc., payment processors and banks, which pocket the largest share.
In China, analysts expect third-party payment providers to earn about 40 percent of such fees by 2020. If apps were to start grabbing market share in the U.S. at roughly the same rate they did in China, it would take a $43 billion revenue bite out of a business banks count as among their most profitable.

Merchant Fees

Financial firms would lose billions if the U.S. embraces third-party apps at a rate like China’s

Fees collected by banks

Fees lost to third parties




in merchant fees could be lost to third-party payment companies by 2020

Note: No estimates are available for Chinese third-party fees for 2017–2019
Sources: Kapronasia, Nilson Report

But that’s just one way that U.S. banks impose fees. They also generate revenue by dispensing cash. If payments apps were to replace paper money—as they have in many situations in China—another form of income could take a big hit.

Easy Money

Checking accounts generate about $3 billion in bank fees, which would dwindle if consumers embrace apps

$1.8B in overdraft fees

$783.3M in maintenance fees

Bank of America

Wells Fargo

Bank of America

Wells Fargo

JPMorgan Chase

JPMorgan Chase

U.S. Bancorp


TD Bank



U.S. Bancorp




JPMorgan Chase

Wells Fargo


TD Bank

TD Bank

National Bank


Bank of America




$341.4M in ATM fees

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Soon, U.S. bank executives won’t have to travel far to see China’s systems up close. Alipay, owned by Jack Ma’s Ant Financial, has spent the better part of the past year inking deals with payment processors that will allow it to bring its technology to America. Already, many New York taxis offer it as a payment option to customers.
So far, Alipay has said the expansion is meant to help Chinese tourists, and that it’s focusing on cities they tend to visit. But few in the payments industry believe it will stop there.
Meanwhile, Chinese consumers are starting to park more of their savings with the apps. In 2013, Alipay began offering money-market accounts. By last year, it had built that business into the world’s largest money-market fund with about $243 billion. For banks, that’s yet another bite. They traditionally hold customer deposits and use that money to fund loans—generating significant profits. If U.S. consumers were to start storing their extra cash with apps, banks would have to find an alternate—probably more expensive—source of funding.


Even a relatively small bite to deposits would be a lot of money

Deposits collected by banks

Deposits lost to third parties


in deposits lost to Alipay (1.6% of total)

in potential lost deposits if the U.S. followed this pattern

Sources: Bloomberg Intelligence, Kapronasia

To be sure, U.S. banks have formidable advantages on their home turf. They have longstanding relationships with their customers, many of whom still like ‘visiting their money’ at a local branch. Consumers love credit card rewards programs and other perks, which have gotten sweeter in recent years, as well as the ability to charge back purchases that don’t go well. And U.S. bank deposits are backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Still, banks and payment networks have a lot to lose if technology firms succeed in grabbing market share—and there are signs that Alipay and WeChat aren’t the only firms that may flex their muscles. Amazon is said to be interested in offering its own product to mimic checking accounts while offering to lower costs for retailers who use its online payments service.
“What happened in China was not an even playing field,” Al Kelly, Visa’s chief executive officer, said at an investor conference in March. “What I hope happens around the rest of the world as they migrate is that at least it’s an even playing field.”

Editors: David Scheer and Peter Eichenbaum