Ualá expands rapidly amid the Coronavirus boosts digital banking and Argentines lose fondness for cash

May 9, 2020
Executive Editor at Financial Times
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SoftBank-funded fintech challenger Ualá expands rapidly amid the pandemic.

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Argentina is one of the world’s toughest business environments for investors, yet some of the biggest names in technology including Tencent and SoftBank have placed their first bets there on a fintech start-up which is reporting explosive growth amid the coronavirus lockdown.

Launched in Buenos Aires in 2017 with the aim of persuading citizens in the largely cash-based economy to transact digitally, Ualá says it has now issued more than 1.9m of its brightly coloured debit cards and is currently signing up almost half a per cent of Argentina’s 44m population every month.

“What we expected to happen over years is now happening over weeks,” said Pierpaolo Barbieri, the 32-year-old Harvard-educated founder of Ualá. “Since the beginning of the quarantine 35 days ago, we have issued almost 140,000 cards, which is double our regular monthly issuance.”

Mr Barbieri moved his employees from Ualá’s hipster warehouse-style offices in the Argentine capital to work from home 10 days before the government imposed a lockdown in March.

But he has kept hiring, with 50 new joiners during the quarantine, making a total of more than 300 employees. “We prepare laptops remotely and send them to homes so staff are onboarded digitally,” he said. “I met our new head of internal comms today and I met her virtually.”

Unbanked Latin America

In Ualá’s favour is Argentina’s large proportion of unbanked citizens. According to the 2017 World Bank global Findex study, only 49 per cent of Argentines have a bank account. Most cite excessive cost or onerous paperwork as the main deterrents. Argentina’s banks have also been slow to innovate and are not universally trusted after numerous financial crises in past decades.

“Ualá and other fintechs in Argentina such as MercadoPago and Brubank clearly show that if you offer the client a simple digital product, they will quickly accept it,” said Lucas Llach, an economist and former vice-president at the central bank. “This is a global phenomenon but Argentina has some advantages, such as complete interoperability between fintechs and banks through a single instant payments system for all accounts.”

Mr Barbieri recognises that MercadoLibre, the Amazon-like online retailing giant which owns MercadoPago, is his biggest direct competitor but insists that “our main competitor remains cash. Seventy-five per cent of transactions in Argentina are still made in cash.”

Here the coronavirus pandemic has helped Ualá. Argentines are unable to go out, withdraw cash and pay bills at a neighbourhood payment point as before. Ualá’s digital bill payments service, which uses Western Union as a partner, has had a 300 per cent increase in transactions during the past month.

Ualá employees moved out of their offices to work from home 10 days before Argentina’s government imposed a lockdown in March © Reuters

Asia has the most relevant experience in fintech challenger banking for Latin America and Ualá has benefited from the experience in China of its backer Tencent, which has persuaded citizens to drop cash for digital payments.

But Mr Barbieri said he was inspired most by Simple, a small US banking start-up founded in Oregon in 2009, which was then acquired by Spain’s BBVA. “It was started well before the European digital banks and it was just that — a simple checking account with a white card, very simple UI UX [user interface, user experience] and it appealed to anyone,” he explained.

Ualá is not licensed to hold deposits — the company is regulated as a payment service provider and must place all its customers’ money on deposit at another bank. It makes personal loans and plans to expand lending but will do so by raising outside capital. An Ualá money market savings fund, run with a local partner, has attracted 380,000 customers.

Column chart of Annual venture capital investment ($m)  showing Interest in Latin American fintech groups has risen sharply

Wouter Gort, a partner in Greyhound Capital which invested early in Ualá, said the start-up’s lack of access to customer deposits was not a problem. “Their close relationships with their client base enable Ualá to provide a better guide to lending decisions than the traditional banks,” he said. “In our view, at this point in the industry, depth of relationship and understanding of clients is more important than having access to [cheap] capital like the incumbents.”

Julie Ruvolo, director of venture capital at the Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America, or LAVCA, said fintech had attracted the largest share of venture capital investment in the continent for four of the past five years. “You have a lack of legacy banking infrastructure and a significant proportion of the population unbanked or underbanked,” she said. “There is demand for enabling payments, digital transactions and consumer lending.”

Ualá completed a $150m series C funding round in November and says it now has enough cash to last it for the next two years, with break-even expected in 2022. The company’s latest valuation was about $900m, according to tech data group CB Insights and confirmed by a person familiar with the matter, but an initial public offering is not a near-term prospect.

Ualá says it has now issued more than 1.9m debit cards © Reuters

Although Mr Barbieri would not comment on international expansion plans, Ualá is said to be eyeing other underbanked countries in the region, such as Colombia, Peru or Mexico. “You don’t raise $150m just to do Argentina,” said one person close to the company. Brazil already has the biggest number of fintech challengers in the region, including the world’s most valuable digital bank start-up Nubank, and is thus a less attractive target.

Challenges abound. Government regulations do not currently allow Ualá to receive salary, pension or state benefit payments directly into accounts, so these must still pass through an established bank.

Argentina’s precarious economic situation is another worry, with the government heading towards a default later this month on $83bn of foreign debt and the central bank printing money at a rapid clip to cover budget deficits, even as inflation spirals. Tight capital controls were imposed in September and remain in place indefinitely, fuelling a thriving parallel market for the dollar.

Mr Barbieri wrote a book in his twenties on Nazi economics and the Spanish civil war and is no stranger to daunting financial situations. “Obviously a default would be negative but we focus on servicing our clients and producing the best product, and the macro is what it is,” he said, pointing out that Argentina’s economy has contracted almost every month since Ualá started out. “I want all those clients that the banks never wanted, and the rest too.”

Las opiniones compartidas y expresadas por los analistas son libres e independientes, y de ellas son responsables sus autores. No reflejan ni comprometen el pensamiento u opinión de Latam Fintech Market, por lo cual no pueden ser interpretadas como recomendaciones emitidas por la platafomra. Esta plataforma es un espacio abierto para promover la diversidad de puntos de vista sobre el ecosistema Fintech.

Argentina is one of the world’s toughest business environments for investors, yet some of the biggest names in technology including Tencent and SoftBank have placed their first bets there on a fintech start-up which is reporting explosive growth amid the coronavirus lockdown.

Launched in Buenos Aires in 2017 with the aim of persuading citizens in the largely cash-based economy to transact digitally, Ualá says it has now issued more than 1.9m of its brightly coloured debit cards and is currently signing up almost half a per cent of Argentina’s 44m population every month.

“What we expected to happen over years is now happening over weeks,” said Pierpaolo Barbieri, the 32-year-old Harvard-educated founder of Ualá. “Since the beginning of the quarantine 35 days ago, we have issued almost 140,000 cards, which is double our regular monthly issuance.”

Mr Barbieri moved his employees from Ualá’s hipster warehouse-style offices in the Argentine capital to work from home 10 days before the government imposed a lockdown in March.

But he has kept hiring, with 50 new joiners during the quarantine, making a total of more than 300 employees. “We prepare laptops remotely and send them to homes so staff are onboarded digitally,” he said. “I met our new head of internal comms today and I met her virtually.”

Unbanked Latin America

In Ualá’s favour is Argentina’s large proportion of unbanked citizens. According to the 2017 World Bank global Findex study, only 49 per cent of Argentines have a bank account. Most cite excessive cost or onerous paperwork as the main deterrents. Argentina’s banks have also been slow to innovate and are not universally trusted after numerous financial crises in past decades.

“Ualá and other fintechs in Argentina such as MercadoPago and Brubank clearly show that if you offer the client a simple digital product, they will quickly accept it,” said Lucas Llach, an economist and former vice-president at the central bank. “This is a global phenomenon but Argentina has some advantages, such as complete interoperability between fintechs and banks through a single instant payments system for all accounts.”

Mr Barbieri recognises that MercadoLibre, the Amazon-like online retailing giant which owns MercadoPago, is his biggest direct competitor but insists that “our main competitor remains cash. Seventy-five per cent of transactions in Argentina are still made in cash.”

Here the coronavirus pandemic has helped Ualá. Argentines are unable to go out, withdraw cash and pay bills at a neighbourhood payment point as before. Ualá’s digital bill payments service, which uses Western Union as a partner, has had a 300 per cent increase in transactions during the past month.

Ualá employees moved out of their offices to work from home 10 days before Argentina’s government imposed a lockdown in March © Reuters

Asia has the most relevant experience in fintech challenger banking for Latin America and Ualá has benefited from the experience in China of its backer Tencent, which has persuaded citizens to drop cash for digital payments.

But Mr Barbieri said he was inspired most by Simple, a small US banking start-up founded in Oregon in 2009, which was then acquired by Spain’s BBVA. “It was started well before the European digital banks and it was just that — a simple checking account with a white card, very simple UI UX [user interface, user experience] and it appealed to anyone,” he explained.

Ualá is not licensed to hold deposits — the company is regulated as a payment service provider and must place all its customers’ money on deposit at another bank. It makes personal loans and plans to expand lending but will do so by raising outside capital. An Ualá money market savings fund, run with a local partner, has attracted 380,000 customers.

Column chart of Annual venture capital investment ($m)  showing Interest in Latin American fintech groups has risen sharply

Wouter Gort, a partner in Greyhound Capital which invested early in Ualá, said the start-up’s lack of access to customer deposits was not a problem. “Their close relationships with their client base enable Ualá to provide a better guide to lending decisions than the traditional banks,” he said. “In our view, at this point in the industry, depth of relationship and understanding of clients is more important than having access to [cheap] capital like the incumbents.”

Julie Ruvolo, director of venture capital at the Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America, or LAVCA, said fintech had attracted the largest share of venture capital investment in the continent for four of the past five years. “You have a lack of legacy banking infrastructure and a significant proportion of the population unbanked or underbanked,” she said. “There is demand for enabling payments, digital transactions and consumer lending.”

Ualá completed a $150m series C funding round in November and says it now has enough cash to last it for the next two years, with break-even expected in 2022. The company’s latest valuation was about $900m, according to tech data group CB Insights and confirmed by a person familiar with the matter, but an initial public offering is not a near-term prospect.

Ualá says it has now issued more than 1.9m debit cards © Reuters

Although Mr Barbieri would not comment on international expansion plans, Ualá is said to be eyeing other underbanked countries in the region, such as Colombia, Peru or Mexico. “You don’t raise $150m just to do Argentina,” said one person close to the company. Brazil already has the biggest number of fintech challengers in the region, including the world’s most valuable digital bank start-up Nubank, and is thus a less attractive target.

Challenges abound. Government regulations do not currently allow Ualá to receive salary, pension or state benefit payments directly into accounts, so these must still pass through an established bank.

Argentina’s precarious economic situation is another worry, with the government heading towards a default later this month on $83bn of foreign debt and the central bank printing money at a rapid clip to cover budget deficits, even as inflation spirals. Tight capital controls were imposed in September and remain in place indefinitely, fuelling a thriving parallel market for the dollar.

Mr Barbieri wrote a book in his twenties on Nazi economics and the Spanish civil war and is no stranger to daunting financial situations. “Obviously a default would be negative but we focus on servicing our clients and producing the best product, and the macro is what it is,” he said, pointing out that Argentina’s economy has contracted almost every month since Ualá started out. “I want all those clients that the banks never wanted, and the rest too.”

Las opiniones compartidas y expresadas por los analistas son libres e independientes, y solamente sus autores son responsables de ellas. No reflejan ni comprometen el pensamiento o la opinión del equipo de Latam Fintech Hub y, por lo tanto, no pueden interpretarse como recomendaciones emitidas por la plataforma. Esta plataforma es un espacio abierto para promover la diversidad de puntos de vista en el ecosistema Fintech.

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