Will Zhong An follow the same post IPO trajectory as Lending Club?

zhong an

In December 2014 we hailed the Lending Club IPO as “the netscape moment for Fintech”. In February of this year, we described the rumoured Zhong An IPO as the Netscape moment for InsurTech.

The Lending Club trajectory, with the stock well below their IPO price, does not augur well for Zhong An. That is the question we address as investors start to think about the Zhong An IPO in Hong Kong.

We start with what we call our Wind Socket Analysis.

Wind Socket Analysis

The flight time from New York to London is about 7.5 hours, vs about 8.5 hours going the other way.

The one hour difference is due to tailwinds and headwinds. Whether you are on an Airbus or Boeing makes little difference. The Pilot cannot make much difference. Translated into company value, the market matters a lot more than the organisation or the management team. A base level is essential- don’t try flying the Atlantic in a small plane and don’t leave a transatlantic plane in the hands of an untrained pilot. In a crisis a great Pilot makes the difference. However all things being equal, what matters are tailwinds and headwinds.

Tailwinds for Zhong An

This is simple. China is a massive blue ocean market. A growing middle class is buying Insurance for the first time. It is a once in a lifetime land grab opportunity and the incumbents are not strong. Compare that to US or European Insurtech ventures selling to consumers who already have a lot of insurance from big, smart insurance companies.

Zhong An has a good plane & crew

You can see this tailwind in the numbers. ZhongAn offers more than 300 insurance products and has written more than 7.56 billion policies for more than 535 million customers. They are clearly executing well. Having raised $900m there is every reason to believe they will continue to do so.

Possible Headwinds

The Chinese economy is in transition, from manufacturing and export led to a more broadly diversified economy driven by consumption and higher value services. The bull case is this is like betting on America a century ago. China bears point to all kinds of issues, such as excess debt, non-performing loans and massive construction over building. If this is your view of the China economy you will avoid the Zhong An IPO. I incline to the bull case but there will be much volatility and there maybe a 1929 type event along the way in China. Nobody knows. Anybody who says they know probably has something to sell you.

Another issue, raised by a Fintech Genome member is about innovators dilemma faced by Ping An insurance, which is a major shareholder of Zhong An but may also could be a competitor down the road. As @EricForgy put it, writing from Hong Kong with a deep knowledge of the insurance business:

“As interesting as Zhong An is, I actually think Ping An is more interesting and is likely to have an even bigger impact on the rest of the world. I think Lufax is just the beginning of their outward expansion. Zhong An itself is struggling to make profit. If you note the numbers imply many small policies (per customer). They are trying to branch into more profitable lines of insurance, but as they do, they will start competing with their parent Ping An. I’m interested to see how that dynamic plays out. I think Ping An wins in terms of technology and Zhong An is no doubt using a lot of Ping An’s technology. Ping An is also trying to export a lot of their AI tech.”

The numbers that Eric Forgy refers to show rapid growth in revenue but declining profitability. Investors can take two different points of view on this:

Either: this shows the whole proposition is flawed.

Or: this is like Amazon and in a market opportunity as big as Insurance in China, it pays to invest for growth.

Which it is will be revealed by a deeper dive into the financials, which we do not have yet. If you have any insights, please share them on this thread on Fintech Genome.

Disruption from a supersonic plane.

All things being equal, headwinds and tailwinds drive value. But a new supersonic plane will change the outcome and that new plane may need a different type of pilot or at least some retraining. A supersonic plane will cut the NYLON journey time to about 3 hours. The equivalent of a supersonic plane in Insurance will be almost real time settlement using blockchain (which we covered many times, one example here).

Zhong An clearly sees this and is investing in Blockchain. So I do not expect Zhong An to be blindsided by blockchain. When both tech and regulation is ready, I expect Zhong An will be ready. The key is that both tech and regulation need to be ready – just like with supersonic planes. This is one area where I would be confident that Zhong An will get it right, because in China big connected companies and government work closely together.

The Lending Club trajectory since IPO

Lending Club did an IPO at $15, rocketed up past $20 and then crashed to an all time low of $3.51 (where I was fortunate enough to buy after posting this). It is now around $5.20. I sold my shares (Lending Club is still a great company, but valuation now is less compelling than other opportunities).

I did not invest in Lending Clun at IPO, because I had reservations at a fundamental level which I posted here. At $15 there was no room for error. At $3.51, the price implied that the whole model was dead and the team was incompetent, neither of which was true.

Many stocks never give you this opportunity. You never get a chance to buy in below the IPO price. Think of Facebook and Salesforce; the price goes down a bit occasionally but not for long.

If you have any insights, please share them on this thread on Fintech Genome.

Image Source.

Bernard Lunn is a Fintech deal-maker, author, investor and thought-leader.

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