When I was in my 20s, I dreamed of becoming a presidential speech writer. I’d stay up reading books, like Ted Sorensen’s memoir “Counselor” (he was JFK’s speechwriter) and “White House Ghosts” (chronicles all the speechwriters from FDR’s). I idolized Toby and Sam in the TV show, “The West Wing.” I’d snag every small opportunity to write short addresses, video scripts, and even letters to staff (all speech-like writing for me to practice) for the bosses I used to work for in politics.
A few years ago, I got an opportunity to do some speech writing for Jack Ma, so I consumed a lot of his speeches in both English and Chinese. He’s an incredibly compelling speaker, so much so that I decided not to pursue the gig, because he really didn’t need the help. He’s a natural.
That talent was on full display again when he spoke at the Bund Finance Summit in Shanghai on October 24. It was compelling enough that I created an English version of it, something I rarely do (you can read it here). It also set off a chain of events -- new financial regulatory documents from government authorities, Ant Group’s cancelled IPO -- that became big news that would’ve been bigger, if the events didn’t coincide with the American election.
Sadly, most of the media coverage has been flat and simplistic, roughly summarized as: Jack Ma spoke out of turn and Chinese authority showed him who the boss is by canceling Ant’s IPO and he lost billions. It’s almost as if no one actually read the full speech or bothered to spend some mental cycles absorbing and contextualizing it, even though most of these coverage cited the speech in one way or another.
We are all about context, nuances, and wrestling with complexities here on Interconnected, so let’s dig in.
The boom and bust of P2P lending in China in the last five years have been horrific and well-documented. It has wreaked havoc -- executives went to jail, ordinary people’s savings disappeared, SMBs blacklisted by the “social credit system”, lives ruined, suicides committed -- all across the country, and especially in Ma’s hometown of Hangzhou, one of the epicenters of P2P.
That’s the broader context that triggered Ma’s speech -- abundantly clear if you read just the first half of it, but hardly present in most of the coverage.
P2P lending’s scandalous mutation isn’t unique to China (remember Lending Club?). But the damage caused in China is more severe. These platforms often offer a 8-10% interest rate, well above a bank’s, on loans that can mature as quickly as one year. This too-good-to-be-true offer attracted people from all demographics: young professionals fresh out of college, families with kids in kindergarten, retirees living on savings and pension, and everyone in between. Most of these loans are issued to SMBs, but few of these platforms have been around long enough to have enough data or technology to rate loans and control risks properly, which is why Ma does not believe P2P lending should be considered a type of “Internet-powered finance'' that he spoke about seven years earlier. Combining these systemic weaknesses with shady characters, who made a quick buck by doing criminal things like siphoning off deposits, caused chaos to ensue. At the peak of the P2P lending boom in 2015, there were around 6,000 such companies; now it’s down to the low hundreds.
But there is a larger root cause. Chinese SMBs need loans, but big banks won't lend to them; they usually lend to mature businesses, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and companies with close connections to the banks. Meanwhile, a growing middle class has no good place to invest their money but domestic real estate. Buying properties abroad certainly happens, but has been made much harder by the country’s capital flight restrictions. The domestic stock market is mostly filled with SOEs or volatile, poor quality companies. (The good ones go public in New York or Hong Kong.)
The P2P lending mirage appeared to have filled pent-up demand from both sides. All this was taking place, and could only take place, in a regulatory vacuum. Like Ma said in his speech to nervous laughter from the audience, “China's financial sector basically doesn’t have a system. Its risk is actually a ‘lack of financial system.’”
In fact, Ant Group’s decision to go public via a double listing in both Hong Kong and the Shanghai STAR market was a big olive branch to the government. It’s exactly what the Chinese capital market needs -- a world-class quality company. That’s why the Shanghai part of the listing was oversubscribed by 872 times.
Ant could’ve listed in New York and got whatever valuation it wanted. It could've done the same in London. It probably could’ve done the same by putting a stack of prospectus in my backyard and invited investors over for a BBQ, if I had a backyard.
So with all this context in mind, on the day after Ant priced its IPO, why did Jack Ma take the stage and take the risk of speaking out?
Simple answer: get a seat at the table to set the rules.
Whether it’s big players like Ant or one of the thousands of P2P lenders masquerading as hot startups, they unfortunately all live in the same regulatory regime.
The first wave of P2P related regulations came in 2016, but the rules were blunt instruments that required more deposits and more collaterals (a “pawn shop mentality”), and the enforcement and compliance effort was spotty at best. What ended up happening in the following years were:
- Lots of P2P lending startups shut down (good)
- Many SMBs who took out loans this way were forced to repay or be blacklisted (not good)
- No recourse or retroactive protection for retail investors who provided the capital and lost all their money (awful)
It’s an understatement to say regulators did not fulfill their responsibilities.
Earlier this year, more regulations were proposed to reduce the liabilities of the P2P lending platforms facilitating these loans in a so-called “capital-light model”, where these firms are just a matchmaking layer between institutional lenders (aka big banks) and loan-seekers, and the onus of credit assessment is now more on the institutional lenders. While these changes may appear to have protected P2P lending, or fintech broadly, it actually took the entire industry back to square one and its original root cause -- SMBs still can’t get loans now that they are dealing with the big banks again, while the middle class still has no good options to invest their money other than real estate.
Jack Ma likely knew about all these regulatory changes heading into Ant’s IPO, and he wasn’t happy about them. So he decided to speak up.
There is very little faith in the government’s abilities or even willingness to protect every day consumers -- just ask any one in China who feels momentarily comfortable speaking her mind in private.
Jack Ma, by speaking up in public, focused all the regulatory attention on Ant Group as the example to look at. The speech not only pushed regulators to think hard about fulfilling their responsibilities, but also gained Ant a seat at the table. A few days after the speech, the “Financial Times” run by the People’s Bank of China (not the British newspaper) ran multiple articles sharing semi-official opinions about the next steps in financial regulation, explicitly mentioning Ant as a reference.
Ma said, “Good innovation is not afraid of regulation, but is afraid of being subjected to yesterday's way to regulate.” Instead of being regulated in “yesterday's way” passively, Ant is now actively part of the rule-making process, which will cascade to the entire industry and affect all its competitors -- Tencent, Baidu, JD, Meituan, 360, Xiaomi, etc. -- none of whom are at the table in the same way.
He knew what he was doing and got what he wanted.
Lots of media coverage fixated superficially on the lower valuation that Ant Group will fetch when it does go public again, under a tighter regulatory environment that may treat it as more of a financial services company, less as a tech company.
But who cares? Jack Ma certainly doesn’t seem to care and has frankly never cared. His net worth before Ant’s IPO is more than $60 billion. His philosophy has always been: “customer first, employees second, shareholders third.”
His speech is consistent with his philosophy, as are its effects. Shareholders and investors are pissed, because they won’t get in on the biggest IPO of all time, and when it does happen, will likely be at a lower valuation. Some Ant employees are pissed, because they will have to wait longer for their big pay day, and when that day comes, their shares will likely be worth less. But if that’s the price to pay to shape a healthier financial system with regulatory clarity, so more Chinese consumers and SMBs can live and operate in peace, many of whom will end up as Ant customers, it’s well worth it.
Entrepreneurs at the calibre of Ma, Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates, etc., don’t care about money, even though the only thing the rest of us seem to notice about them is money. As cheesy as it sounds, for them, it is about building a world they want to see and live in, and money is just the instrument they need to get there. It’s a rarefied field that many entrepreneurs aspire to, labor for day in and day out, but don’t achieve simply because it’s near impossible.
The hallmark of a consequential speech is not its soaring oratory or flowery turn of phrase, but its ability to move the needle in a society and leave something behind that could stand the test of time -- legacy. While I wouldn't quite place Ma’s speech in the pantheon of historical speeches, I do think it has moved the needle, which is particularly remarkable given China’s unique environment when it comes to public speech-making.
Ma’s speech displayed a level of influence on regulators that Zuckerberg or Bezos would crave. Imagine if Zuckerberg gave a speech about the future of social media and free expression, then was immediately summoned to Congress and the FTC to help shape Section 230, personal privacy, and algorithm-driven social networks.
In fact, I think Zuckerberg tried to do exactly that with his Georgetown speech in 2019, but no one took him up on it. Instead, he and other big tech CEOs continue to get paraded around in hearings and used as pinatas for political theatre.
I hope this post doesn’t come across as a fanboy piece for Jack Ma. If I was a Ma fanboy, I would’ve worked for him already.
This is just the non-professional views of another non-professional person.
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10月24日，当他在上海的外滩金融峰会上发表演讲时，这种天赋再次淋漓尽致地被发挥了，以至于我把它翻译成了英文，虽然我很少做翻译的事情（您可以在这里阅读全文）。这番演讲也引发了一连串的事件 -- 政府主管部门新的金融监管文件、蚂蚁集团取消IPO -- 成了大新闻。如果这些事件没有凑巧和美国大选撞在同一周，这新闻可能更大。
过去五年来，中国P2P借贷的“繁荣”和萧条是非常可怕的，而且证据确凿。它在全国各地都造成了巨大的破坏 -- 高管入狱，普通人的存款消失，中小企业被 "社会信用体系 "列入黑名单，生活破碎，老百姓自杀 -- 尤其是在马云的老家杭州，也P2P的中心之一。
这就是引发马云演讲的大背景 -- 如果您只读了演讲的前一半就会看到，可惜大多数报道中几乎没有这层背景。
P2P网贷的丑闻和变异并非中国独有（还记得Lending Club吗？），但在中国造成的伤害更为严重。这些平台往往提供8-10%的利率，远高于银行的利率，有些贷款最快一年就到期。这种“好得不能再好”的诱惑吸引了各种人参与：大学刚毕业的年轻白领、有孩子上幼儿园的小家庭、靠储蓄和养老金生活的已退休的老爷爷老奶奶等等。这些贷款大多是面向中小企业发放的，但这些平台的寿命一般很短，所以也不拥有足够的数据或技术来对贷款进行合理的评估和适当的风控，这就是为什么马云不认为P2P贷款应该被化为他七年前谈到的 "互联网金融"的一种。将这些制度上的弱点与一帮想一夜暴富的人结合起来，许多人非法地抽走了存款来赚快钱，就产生了乱象丛生。在2015年P2P网贷最火的时候，这种公司大约有6000家，现在已经跌到仅有几百家了。
事实上，蚂蚁集团决定通过在香港和上海科创板双重上市，就是向政府伸出了一条大橄榄枝。这正是中国资本市场需要的 -- 一家世界级的优质企业在国内上市。这也是为什么在上海部分上市的股票的购买需求是供给的872倍。
今年早些时期，更多的监管法规提出来了，以所谓的 "轻资本模式 "来降低这些P2P借贷平台的风险，变成只是为有机构资金的金融机构（也就是大银行）做链接服务，信用评估的责任由这些金融机构承担。这个变化看似保护了P2P贷款，甚至整体金融科技行业，但实际上却让整个问题回到了原点，回到了最初的根源 -- 中小企业现在又要和大银行打交道，仍然借不到钱，而中产阶级的钱除了投房地产，仍然没有好的其他选择。
老百姓对政府保护消费者和普通人的能力，甚至意愿，根本没有什么信心 -- 随便问问在中国任何一个在私下还敢讲点心里话的人就知道。
马云在演讲里说："好的创新不怕监管，但是怕用昨天的方式去监管。" 蚂蚁现在不是被动地被 "昨天的方式 "监管，而是主动地参与到规则制定的过程中，这将层层叠叠地影响到整个行业，影响到所有的竞争对手 -- 腾讯、百度、JD、美团、360、小米等，而它们却没有蚂蚁拥有的一席之地。
马云的演讲展示了他能影响监管机构的能力，是扎克伯格或贝佐斯梦寐以求的。想象一下，如果扎克伯格发表了一场关于社交媒体和自由言论的未来的演讲，然后立即被国会和FTC邀请，帮助修改Communications Decency Act的第230条、或塑造监管个人隐私和算法驱动的社交网络的新规则。