Author(s): Raghu Gopal
Last week, Ant Financial announced that it will buy currency exchange start-up WorldFirst in a deal valued at about $700 million. The acquisition of the UK company gives Ant a stronger global presence, as it continues to roll out its Alipay online payment services internationally.
Ant Financial is an affiliate of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and is best known for its Alipay service. This is China's leading mobile payment app, with over 550 million registered users who tap the platform for everything from micro-transactions to wealth management. Ant, valued at about $150 billion, has been pushing to grow its empire outside China and beyond Asia–Pacific, as competition with Tencent heats up at home.
Ant was forced to abandon its plan in 2018 to merge with US-based MoneyGram after the companies failed to get the go-ahead from regulators. Recently, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — a national security panel — has become more active in blocking Chinese investments in US companies. But this hasn't stopped Ant from pursuing its international expansion: during 2018 it moved into the Brazilian payments market by acquiring StoneCo, and also bought bKash in Bangladesh and Telenor Microfinance Bank in Pakistan.
Founded in 2004, WorldFirst handles payments and currency transfers for businesses and individuals around the globe. It has offices in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US, and employs about 600 people. The company is popular among migrant workers, allowing them to make transfers to family and friends online or in person at its outlets. WorldFirst announced in 2018 that it would acquire the retail money transfer business of San Francisco-based start-up Wyre, which had built the network on blockchain technology. However, the deal was scuttled earlier in 2019.
The acquisition gives Ant Financial a massive international boost, and for the first time a significant presence in Europe. The deal represents the most significant foray to date by a Chinese technology company into the UK's burgeoning financial technology sector and underscores China's growing financial muscle in the world economy.