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Are Square and Robinhood the new super apps?

Assif Shameen
Assif Shameen • 10 min read
Are Square and Robinhood the new super apps?
For the past week or so, the spotlight has squarely been on these two FinTech firms.
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For the past week or so, the spotlight has squarely been on two large consumer-focused financial technology or FinTech firms. Robinhood Markets, which pioneered commission-free trading of stocks, options, cryptocurrencies and fractional shares, listed its shares on Nasdaq, raising US$2 billion ($2.7 billion). The listing was a disaster as investment banks failed to keep the stock from falling well below the IPO price. In the four trading days since, Robinhood stock has more than doubled.

Days after Robinhood’s IPO, US payments giant Square, which operates the ubiquitous Cash App, made its biggest acquisition ever buying Australian-listed “Buy Now Pay Later” (BNPL) firm Afterpay for a whopping US$29 billion in an all-stock transaction. Even for the overhyped FinTech space, that’s a hefty price tag. Square is paying 25 times Afterpay’s estimated sales for the current fiscal year ending next June — a multiple until recently reserved for a handful for ultra-high-growth software firms.

Listed firms overpaying to make large transformational acquisitions often see their stocks clobbered on the news of the deal. Yet, for Square’s investors, somehow it all made sense. The operator of Cash App itself trades at stratospheric multiples and was using its own overvalued shares as currency to buy a company with strong revenue growth. Though Square’s revenues grew 102% last year compared to AfterPay 78% sales growth in its last fiscal year and Square is projected to post 100% revenue growth this year, it is mostly on the back of the bitcoin boom. Excluding crypto trading, Square's revenue only grew 17% in 2020, and analysts expect its total revenue (excluding cryptos) to grow just 13% in 2022. Afterpay sales are expected to grow 60% this year and over 50% next year. By leveraging each other’s growing client base, the combined firm expects to supercharge its growth.

BNPL firms facilitated US$20 billion in transactions in America last year. In the first two months of this year, BNPL transactions in the US grew 215% over the previous year. Kaleido Intelligence, a market research firm, estimates that consumers could transact US$680 billion globally using point-of-sales instalment payments over e-commerce channels by 2025. If that pans out, it could mean a huge market share loss by traditional banks, credit card issuers and consumer finance firms.

To be sure, instalment credit business, called layaway or point-of-sale credit in the US, is older than credit cards. Long before plastic issued by the likes of Visa International, MasterCard and American Express became popular, an array of consumer goods — refrigerators, washing machines and others — were being sold on instalments with interest rates as high as, or higher than, the 20% to 28% charged by credit card firms.

BNPL is the credit card for millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born in or after 1997). You can pay the entire US$1,099 for 12.9-inch 128GB iPad Pro, US$199 for popular Nike Air Zoom Tempo sneakers, or US$1,895 for a Peloton bike using cash or your credit card. Or you could split it into four monthly payments with BNPL instalments. And if you pay all instalments on time, there is no interest or fees that credit card or instalment credit firms normally add on. Moreover, some FinTechs will not even charge you any interest if one instalment is a few days late, as opposed to hefty late payment fees and metered interest rates charges of as high as 28% that begin as soon as you miss the payment deadline on bank-issued credit cards or layaway instalments. We all find credit cards very convenient, but if you have ever paid a card bill a day or two late, you know just how much incumbent banks can charge in late fees and high interest rates.

BNPL FinTechs like Afterpay, Affirm, Swedish FinTech Klarna as well as emerging US player Sezzle and Australian-listed SplitIt that offer the option to finance in smaller monthly payments make most of their profits from merchants willing to lay out money upfront to acquire customers who might not want to pay the full price of goods or services. The merchants are effectively discounting the goods 4% to 6% by paying BNPL firms to make the sale. The credit risk is borne by those software firms disguised as BNPL entities which understand how to deal with charge-offs, or debt that can no longer be collected because the borrower has not made payments for a period of time, as well as how to give customers enough time to pay the balance they owe without having the clock of interest payments running. In many ways, credit cards and instalment loans are a category that has long been ripe for disruption. BNPL firms collect a ton of data on you to assess risk, and monetise, and do not have huge legacy costs like banks.

'Not expensive'

Is Square overpaying for Afterpay? “It’s certainly not expensive when you look at what they are getting for the price,” Dan Dolev, FinTech analyst at Mizuho Securities in New York, told The Edge in a phone interview. “Square has a network of 70 million users on their platform and what they get is 16 million ‘Buy Now Pay Later’ users instantly giving them another US$40 average revenue per user or ARPU. Once the deal is consummated, he estimates Square will go from an ARPU of US$50 currently to around US$80 on its Cash App for the combined firm. Dolev notes that Square has been a US-centric company and the deal gives it massive international exposure. More than that, the enlarged Square, he says, “will have a strong credit card alternative that millennials and the younger demographics want”.

Think of consumer-focused FinTechs like Square and PayPal as financial social networks for payments. Square bought a controlling stake in music streaming service Tidal from singer and actress Beyonce and her rapper husband Jay-Z last year. It also has a commission-free online stocks trading platform in the US which it plans to eventually take global. There are two keys to consumer financial services: convenience or ease of use, and trust. And one of the biggest costs is customer acquisition. FinTechs like Square and PayPal already have a big and growing customer base which they can cross-sell an array of financial services at a fraction of the cost of the incumbents.

Paypal, for example, has a network of over 400 million users, including 30 million merchants. “They already have a great two-sided network and all they need to do is to execute on it,” says Dolev. He believes PayPal's new financial super app strategy is a winner. Paypal was the first mover in the BNPL space with its own "Pay in 4” instalments service two years ago. It has grown its own BNPL operations organically 49% q-o-q this year.

The way Dolev tells it, Square is far better positioned to be the premier financial service provider for a new generation of savers, investors and spenders. Eventually, the Mizuho analyst sees Square applying for digital banking licences in key jurisdictions or partnering digital banks around the world which want to piggyback on Square’s financial social network and allow Square to piggyback on their own local connections, user base and local digital banking licences. “It’s going to take some time to build out, but we are already starting to see it take shape,” he says. “Square wants to be a fullfledged global digital bank with social and peer-to-peer (or P2P) element.” And while the likes of JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup took over 200 years to take shape, FinTechs like Square will probably do it in a fraction of that time, he says.

Competition is coming particularly in the BNPL space. iPhone maker Apple is teaming up with Goldman Sachs’ consumer finance app Marcus to launch its own BNPL service later this year. Initially, in many countries, the venture is likely to just finance Apple products. To buy the new iPhone 14 that will be released next month or MacBook Pro, you do not need a credit card and your credit history checked. Apple will sell you the item as long as you are willing to pay it over four instalments. No silly charges or usurious credit card interest rates. In other geographies, the BNPL will allow you to buy Nike sneakers or even yoga pants in the Lululemon store. Incumbents like JP Morgan and Citigroup are launching their own BNPL services. Dolev told me that he does not think Apple-Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan’s new strategy to leverage FinTech will slow either Square or PayPal. “The consumer credit market is huge and still growing, and there is plenty of room for both FinTechs and the incumbents to grow,” he says.

Shares of Visa and Mastercard plunged 5.5% and 7.5% in the two days after the news of the deal, while American Express stock was down 3%. Stocks of the biggest card-issuing banks in the world — JP Morgan, Citigroup and Bank of America — also fell 1% to 2% on the news. Over the long run, credit-card industry analysts say the real damage is likely to be inflicted on smaller and medium-sized banks rather than the big card-issuing banks like JP Morgan for which cards are a small portion of the total business and whose core investment banking and basic balance sheet lending business is hard to replicate.

Robinhood's crypto wallet

In the lead-up to its IPO last week, Robinhood was a much-derided retail brokerage criticised for its reliance on “payment for order flows” as well as on crypto trading revenues. Now with US$2 billion in the bank from the IPO, another US$300 million being raised from the “greenshoe” over-allotment option next week and a stratospheric stock price, Robinhood is seen as doing a series of quick secondary offerings or selling additional shares in the market at a high valuation. Robinhood is expected to unveil its own crypto wallet within the next few months and a slew of other financial services including a BNPL service. Immigrants Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, both worth over US$4 billion each, are keen to slash reliance on payment for order flows as well as crypto trading. They already have a ton of data and nearly 20 million satisfied young customers who do not trust incumbent banks. Their goal is to build a consumer-focused global financial behemoth, not just expand their commission-free brokerage.

It has been done before. In 1971, Charles Schwab, the writer of an investment newsletter, took over a small brokerage firm to serve retail investors. When NYSE abolished fixed commissions in 1975, he rolled out his eponymous discount brokerage. Today, Charles Schwab is the 12th largest bank in the US with over US$6.6 trillion in client assets and the third-largest investment management firm in America behind BlackRock and Vanguard. Schwab transformed from a discount brokerage to an asset manager to one of biggest banks in America because it had access to customers. People buying stocks also want credit cards, mortgages, as well as deposit and checking accounts. The road ahead for Robinhood and Square is going to be bumpy, but challenger FinTechs like these which have a loyal and fast-growing customer base are the strong disruptors that incumbent banking giants will have to contend with.

Assif Shameen is a technology and business writer based in North America

Photo: Bloomberg

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