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Investors rethink China strategy after regulatory shocks

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After four days of heavy selling in Chinese stocks, regulators in Beijing decided it was time to offer some reassurance to Wall Street. But some investors have still been left figuring out whether to double down or flee.

In a hastily arranged call on Wednesday evening, Chinese regulators told a dozen or so executives from global investors, heavy-hitting banks and Chinese financial groups not to fret about the shock overhaul of the country’s $100bn private tutoring industry. Investors should not worry about intervention to curtail profitmaking in other companies, they said. Rather, China remained committed to allowing companies to access capital markets. 

The message did not stick. Tech stocks in the country have wrapped up their worst month since the financial crisis of 2008. “Clearly there will be more [regulatory intervention] to come,” said one person briefed on the call. “That much was obvious to everyone.” 

Now, foreign investors in China have been left nursing huge losses, and anxious over where, after education, regulators might turn their attention next. They must decide whether the drop in stocks is an opportunity to double down on a fast-growing economy or a sign that unpredictable political risk outweighs potentially lucrative returns.

“The political risk factors of investing in China have grown exponentially in the past 18 months,” said Dominic Armstrong, chief executive of Horatius Capital, which runs a geopolitical investment fund. “People learned the hard way in Russia and they’re learning the hard way in China.” 

Line chart of Stock index performance year to date (%) showing China's tech crackdown hits foreign listings harder

Tough lesson

Following a leaked memo just over a week ago suggesting Beijing was planning to clamp down on education companies, the market sell-off was sharp.

It was led by a drop in education stocks that, according to one Gavekal analyst, made for “some of the most traumatic viewing since the charts of Lehman’s bonds”. TAL Education, Gaotu Techedu and New Oriental Education, which are listed in New York, all fell close to 60 per cent in the first hour of trading on July 23.

Further jitters came on Tuesday when Tencent, one of China’s biggest tech groups, announced its flagship WeChat social network had suspended user registrations as it upgraded security technology “to align with all relevant laws and regulations”. 

Nerves have pummelled Chinese tech groups listed in New York, taking the Nasdaq Golden Dragon China index down more than 20 per cent in July — the worst month since the global financial crisis. 

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng Tech index fell almost 15 per cent, dragging the broader Hang Seng benchmark almost 9 per cent lower as Chinese internet giants Tencent and Alibaba fell 18 and 14 per cent, respectively. 

Big institutional investors have driven the selling, according to strategists at JPMorgan Chase. Meanwhile Ark Invest star manager Cathie Wood has also been slashing her China holdings. The $22.4bn Ark Innovation exchange-traded fund, which held an 8 per cent allocation to China shares in February, has now almost completely exited Chinese stocks, according to the company’s website.

But some have stepped in for a potential bargain. “We have been net buyers,” said a fund manager at a $15bn Asia-based asset manager. “It is unheard of to see these types of moves . . . You’ve got to buy them, unless you think the entire world is going to crash and burn.”

The new rules will ban companies that teach school curriculum subjects from accepting foreign investment © Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty

National objectives

The crackdown on education marks part of the Chinese Communist party’s attempts to address falling birth rates by removing some of the perceived financial obstacles to having children. The rules will ban companies that teach school curriculum subjects from making profits, raising capital or listing on stock exchanges worldwide, and from accepting foreign investment.

This sector is dominated by three large US-listed groups — TAL Education, New Oriental Education and Gaotu Techedu — which have enjoyed soaring valuations in recent years and drawn billions of dollars of backing from some of the world’s top investment firms such as BlackRock and Baillie Gifford.

Private rivals like Yuanfudao and Zuoyebang, which have held multibillion-dollar funding rounds in recent years, are backed by groups including Tencent, Sequoia, SoftBank’s Vision Fund and Jack Ma’s Yunfeng Capital.

The government intervention came shortly after anti-monopoly and data security measures against some of China’s largest tech companies. Last November the $37bn blockbuster initial public offering of Chinese payments group Ant was torpedoed by Beijing regulators, and its controlling shareholder — Alibaba founder Ma — disappeared from public view for several months.

In the past few months Beijing has also been expanding its influence in to the domestic online sector. In April it fined ecommerce group Alibaba $2.8bn for abusing its market dominance, and opened an antitrust investigation into Meituan, the takeaway delivery and lifestyle services platform. 

And earlier in July, Chinese regulators announced an investigation into possible data security breaches at Didi Chuxing, less than a month after the ride-hailing app raised more than $4bn in a New York listing. Its shares have dropped two-fifths since then.

Line chart of Performance of American depository receipts showing Once high-flying Chinese education stocks tumble back  to Earth

Baillie Gifford, the Edinburgh-based fund manager with £352bn in assets under management, is the second-largest shareholder in US-listed TAL and has made big bets on China’s tech sector.

“It’s not saying we like the geopolitics or the national politics or anything like that,” Baillie Gifford fund manager James Anderson told the Financial Times in June, referring to its decision to add exposure to China in recent years.

But potential gains are too compelling to ignore, he added, pointing to “the excitement we see around businesses, the ambition levels among Chinese entrepreneurs, and the relationships we can build with the individual companies”. 

Baillie Gifford declined to comment this week on the latest developments in China.

The new restrictions for private tutoring companies prohibit them from accepting foreign capital through “variable interest entity” structures — the model that many big Chinese tech firms have used to list abroad for two decades. The VIE structure, which allows global investors to get around controls on foreign ownership in some Chinese industries, has never been legally recognised in China, despite underpinning about $2tn of investments in companies like Alibaba and Pinduoduo on US markets. 

In response to Beijing’s restrictions on China-based companies raising capital offshore, on Friday the US Securities and Exchange Commission announced that China-based companies will have to disclose more about their structure and contacts with the Chinese government before listing in the US. 

“I worry that average investors may not realise that they hold stock in a shell company rather than a China-based operating company,” SEC chair Gary Gensler said in a statement.

Beijing has opened an antitrust investigation into Meituan, the takeaway delivery and lifestyle services platform © Yan Cong/Bloomberg

Widening crackdown?

The education crackdown sparked fears the VIE ban could be extended to other sectors.

Revoking the rights of Chinese companies to use VIEs is seen as China’s nuclear option. On Wednesday, Beijing regulators sought to reassure investors that it would not target VIEs more widely. But one Wall Street executive briefed on this week’s call with regulators said “it was more about what they didn’t say, there were questions about the VIE structure they didn’t address”.

The consequences of restricting VIEs in sectors outside of education would be so severe that some are confident Beijing would not eradicate them completely.

“The government will allow the VIE structure to survive, but one thing is clear: if a company wants to use the VIE structure to circumvent certain regulations then that is not going to work,” said Min Chen, head of China at $8bn emerging markets specialist Somerset Capital Management.

Rather than selling out of China altogether, some investors say they are focusing on trying to select stocks that are in line with the government’s strategic priorities. 

“Companies such as taxi-hailing groups or community group buying businesses, where their model is to use their competitive pricing advantage to squeeze out smaller players are likely to find themselves vulnerable to more regulation,” said Chen. “There is also the potential for winners in this environment, such as domestic leaders in the tech space and semiconductor producers . . . as well as companies that are exposed to mass consumption.” 

Alice Wang, a London-based fund manager at €2.7bn Quaero Capital, agreed that investors will need to switch to betting on sectors that are “important to China’s long-term economic future . . . areas like renewables and industrial automation companies that drive the ‘Made in China’ narrative.”

David Older, head of equities at €41bn asset manager Carmignac, echoed these sentiments and said he likes sectors such as semiconductors, software, renewable energy, healthcare and electric vehicles. He is overweight China and has been adding to his positions this week: “It’s a great buying signal when you see strategists saying that China is uninvestable.”

Trying to align yourself with the government’s strategic objectives “is the only way you can sleep at night”, said Horatius Capital’s Armstrong.

Chinese government intervention is about addressing its “demographic time bomb,” he said. “This is a Chinese problem and there will be a Chinese solution. You can come along and be a passenger if you want, but the ride is not going to be smooth.”

International asset managers rush to tap ‘huge’ China wealth opportunity

Some of the world’s biggest investors are pushing into China with wealth management joint ventures to create investment products for the country’s vast and growing pools of savers. A report from Boston Consulting Group and China Everbright Bank showed that China’s wider wealth market was worth Rmb121.6tn ($18.9tn) in 2020, up 10 per cent from a year earlier. 

While China’s wealth management sector is still dominated by banks, early overseas movers include Europe’s Amundi and Schroders, and BlackRock, JPMorgan Asset Management and Goldman Sachs Asset Management from the US, lured by the country’s liberalisation of its financial markets.

“There’s a fast-growing middle class in China that has huge [asset management] needs for savings and retirement,” said Valérie Baudson, chief executive of €1.8tn group Amundi, which recently launched a wealth management subsidiary with the Bank of China. This year the joint venture has launched over 50 funds to sell to the Chinese bank’s network of clients, and raised €3.4bn in assets. 

Executives downplayed the political risk of these initiatives, pointing to the importance of partnering with domestic Chinese institutions. “It’s not a risk that keeps me up at night. For us it’s about a long-term investment,” said Peter Harrison, chief executive of £700bn asset manager Schroders, which gained approval in February for a wealth management subsidiary with China’s Bank of Communications. Bringing Schroders’ long-term investment approach to China, “is very much for the benefit of long-term Chinese savers,” he added.

The value of Amundi has been updated since first publication.

Additional reporting by Eric Platt in New York



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Analysis

Paris terror victims to make voices heard at landmark French trial

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Terrorism updates

The Palais de Justice in Paris has been at the heart of French legal affairs for centuries but the case starting there on Wednesday is like no other: the landmark trial of 20 men accused of planning and carrying out terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.

Those deadly hours starting on November 13 2015, have been labelled by some as France’s own version of what the US lived through on September 11 2001. They formed part of a traumatic period in France when Isis fighters returning from Syria and Iraq, and French citizens who adhered to their cause, carried out a series of deadly acts, from killing journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 to the truck rampage in Nice in July 2016.

Only one of the men on trial, which will take place with five judges in a specially prepared courtroom over nine months, is accused of being directly involved in the attacks. Most of the perpetrators died that night.

François Molins, the then Paris prosecutor who rushed to the scene of the attacks, said the trial would have stakes beyond judging the accused.

“The trial must fulfil several objectives, the first of which is revealing the truth of what happened,” he added. “It should help the victims in their healing process by having a cathartic effect. It will also be an occasion to remind us of our society’s values of humanity and dignity, which stands in stark contrast to those espoused by the Islamist terrorists.”

An aspect of the French legal system that differs from common law in the UK or the US will lend a particular intensity to the trial: about 1,800 victims, often the families of those killed, have joined the case as civil parties. 

That gives them the right to be represented by lawyers who can ask questions and call witnesses, just like the defence and prosecution. Victims who want to speak about how they were affected can do so during five weeks set aside for such testimony.

Journalists capture images inside the temporary courtroom prepared for trial over the 2015 terrorist attacks
The case will be heard in a temporary structure under the vaulted ceiling of a ceremonial hall in the Palais de Justice © Yoan Valat/EPA/Shutterstock

Philippe Duperron, whose 30-year-old son Thomas was killed in the attacks and who heads the victims’ association 13onze15 Fraternité et Vérité, will be among them.

“We must embody the victims so they are not relegated to anonymity,” he said. “I will carry the voice of Thomas. I owe him that as his father.”

Sharon Weill, a law professor specialising in terrorism trials at the American University of Paris, said the victims’ prominent role would set this trial apart. It will also allow for scrutiny of intelligence failures before the attacks, such as lack of co-ordination with other European countries.

“The proceedings will really be a mixture of a criminal trial and a sort of truth commission to establish the narrative and collective memory,” said Weill.

The attackers struck Parisians enjoying a Friday night. Supervised by Isis, three teams fanned out across the capital in rented cars. In just under four hours they set off suicide bombs near a football match at Stade de France, fired automatic weapons at people drinking at café terraces in the city’s trendy 10th arrondissement, and killed 90 people in a rampage at the Bataclan theatre, where an American metal band was playing.

Eleven attackers died, either blowing themselves up or being killed by police. French and Belgian investigators tracked the surviving attackers through recovered mobile phones to a cell in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels. 

Soon after, police killed two alleged attackers in a Paris suburb, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian-Moroccan mastermind of the operation. But it took a long manhunt to catch Salah Abdeslam, who will be the sole defendant at the trial accused of being directly involved that night.

Abdeslam told Belgian investigators in 2016 that he had rented cars and dropped off the commandos at the Stade de France, but did not follow through on the plan to blow himself up there. He said little during years of investigations by French magistrates and it remains to be seen if he will speak at the trial.

Thirteen other defendants allegedly provided logistical support, such as renting cars or apartments, providing fake passports, or obtaining weapons. Six defendants, including several Isis leaders who allegedly planned operations in Europe, are being tried in absentia, although some are thought dead in Syria. 

A person cries as she stands at a makeshift memorial for the victims of a series of deadly attacks in Paris
A memorial for the victims of the Paris attacks. The victims and their families will have access to an audio feed of the trial to follow proceedings © Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Among the witnesses will be former president François Hollande, as well as the then interior minister and intelligence services chiefs. They are likely to face questions about how the attackers pulled off the operation even though many were on the radar of security services. “This will not be a trial to judge the state’s actions, but that of the defendants,” Hollande told Libération newspaper in comments published this month. “But I feel I have a duty to help with the search for truth.”

Since no courtroom was big enough, the case will be heard in a 700 sq m temporary structure under the vaulted ceiling of a ceremonial hall in the Palais de Justice. Cameras will record the proceedings, while efforts have been made to ensure that the victims and their families can exercise their rights as civil parties without renewed trauma. An audio feed of the trial will be accessible only to them, so they can follow proceedings. Psychologists will be available to provide support. 

Arthur Dénouveaux, a survivor of the Bataclan attack who leads Life for Paris, a victims’ group, said he was surprised by the powerful emotions revived by the upcoming trial.

“I do not have the control over them that I thought, despite having done many steps in recovery,” Dénouveaux said. “But the message I will carry at the trial is that terrorism does not destroy us. We are still here and we are alive.”



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Norway’s oil rises to top of election agenda as climate fears grow

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Norway’s voters are to give their verdict next week in what has become a “climate election” — jolted into life by the UN report last month that issued a stark “code red” over the impact of environmental change.

The UN report has forced Norway to examine a big contradiction at the heart of its economy. The country is one of the largest proponents of green solutions such as electric cars and carbon capture storage: seven in 10 new cars sold last month in Norway were fully electric.

But the country is also western Europe’s biggest petroleum producer, with a massive sovereign wealth fund accumulated on the back of oil and gas output.

That dissonance is being tested in the election on Sunday and Monday. Support is rising for the Green party, which says it will only join a government that promises an immediate halt to oil and gas exploration. The two other main parties campaigning on climate, the Socialist Left and Liberals, are also rising in the polls. The Greens’ membership numbers have jumped by a third in just a few weeks.

“It was a game-changer for Norway when that UN report came out. It is now the most important seven days in Norway’s history,” said Kriss Rokkan Iversen, deputy leader of the Greens.

Espen Barth Eide, energy spokesman for the centre-left Labour party agreed: “This is clearly the climate election, even more than people thought it would be.” Labour leads in polls but oil is likely to be an obstacle to a viable coalition.

Norway’s two biggest political parties — Labour and the centre-right Conservatives of prime minister Erna Solberg — stand firmly behind the oil industry, which is responsible for about 160,000 direct jobs, or about 6 per cent of the total.

Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store with prime minister and Conservative leader Erna Solberg
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store with prime minister and Conservative leader Erna Solberg © Gorm Kallestad/Reuters

Tina Bru, the Conservative oil and energy minister, is firmly against ending exploration or setting an end date for Norway’s petroleum production, arguing for doing more to cut global demand.

“We are preparing for a future with less demand for oil and gas, we’re building new green industries, but we won’t get there by hurting our economy, destroying jobs and dismantling an industry,” she said.

Eide said: “We want to undermine the prospects for a long-term oil industry rather than closing the supply.”

Norwegian oil production has risen in recent years following the discovery of the giant Johan Sverdrup field in the North Sea. It is set to fall again from 2025 or so.

Solberg told the Financial Times this summer that she would not act to accelerate that decline but that Norway was on a gradual “shift” to green industries.

Following a tax tweak last year that helped the oil industry, Solberg’s government this month proposed another complicated fiscal change that appears mildly positive in the short term for most companies active in Norway, while making speculative exploration costlier.

Extinction Rebellion environmental activists protest outside Norway’s oil ministry
Extinction Rebellion environmental activists protest outside Norway’s oil ministry © Ole Berg-Rusten/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s a sign that the oil market in Norway is becoming mature and is only attractive to fewer companies. But the worry is that this is the second change in two years after years of stability — it shows how oil could become more of a political football,” said a senior executive at an oil company active in Norway.

For the Greens, the tax debate is a sideshow. As well as ending exploration, they also want to halt production by 2035.

Iversen said Norway was a petroleum pioneer in the 1960s and 1970s but did not have the same spirit for the “green shift” — with, for instance, the world’s largest wind farm developer found in neighbouring Denmark.

Of the willingness to stick by the oil industry, she said: “It’s a question of feeling and identity for many Norwegians. I don’t think it’s rational.”

Defenders of the oil industry have also stepped up their rhetoric. Sylvi Listhaug, the leader of the populist Progress party, this summer posted a social media picture of her filling her car up, with the caption: “Lovely with the smell of real fuel.”

Barth Eide said Labour, under its leader Jonas Gahr Store, would not go into government with a party that insisted on stopping exploration or production. However, its two favourite coalition partners — Centre, and the Socialist Left — hold almost opposing views on Norway’s biggest industry.

Eide said a compromise was possible, avoiding over-investing in oil but refusing to put an end-date on either production or exploration. He also hinted that contentious exploration in the Barents Sea, inside the Arctic Circle, could end as companies such as state-controlled Equinor favour proven areas in the North and Norwegian Seas.

The Greens’ Kriss Rokkan Iversen
The Greens’ Kriss Rokkan Iversen. Support for the party has risen recently © Siri Døsen

Labour is likely to have a much more interventionist industrial policy as it attempts to speed up the green transition. “It has clearly gone too slowly . . . The pace does not fit with the remaining time,” Barth Eide added.

Economists believe Norway’s move away from oil will be expensive but unavoidable. “Can we afford to wind down? It’s going to be extremely costly. But can we afford not to? No, we can’t. It’s hard to say that doing nothing is the best option, but we need to find a good balance,” said Hilde Bjornland, economics professor at BI Norwegian Business School.

Iversen argued that if Norway failed to move away from oil quickly enough, it could hurt both the climate and its famously generous welfare state.

“In the middle of the climate and Covid crises . . . we locked ourselves even more into oil and gas,” she said. “It is like we have this oil fog blurring our view and stopping us setting a course for our future.”

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El Salvador becomes a crypto laboratory with bitcoin gamble

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Like millions of Salvadorans, chauffeur Ricardo López has spent the past few weeks trying to get his head around bitcoin. Once the digital currency becomes legal tender this week, he is not sure he will accept it, but if he does he will convert it immediately into US dollars.

“They say the price varies and that it’s a bit like the stock market,” the 37-year-old said. “Most people are afraid because of the lack of information.”

Twenty years after it adopted the US dollar as its national currency, El Salvador will on Tuesday become the first country in the world to make bitcoin legal tender.

In a plan spearheaded by the Central American nation’s populist president Nayib Bukele, citizens will be able to shop, pay taxes and buy land using the volatile cryptocurrency.

Proponents say it will cut the fees Salvadorans pay to send home remittances — which represent one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product — promote financial inclusion for those without bank accounts and facilitate access to a potentially high-yielding asset.

Critics say the rushed plan could cost poorer Salvadorans when the price falls, raise costs for banks and insurers, provide a shield for money launderers and risk economic stability.

Rating agency Moody’s downgraded the country’s debt rating in part because of the law. The IMF — currently in talks with the government over a new loan — said adopting cryptocurrency as legal tender could destabilise prices and put the financial system at risk.

Stickers against bitcoin on an ice cream vendor’s cart in San Salvador
An ice cream vendor in San Salvador voices her opposition to bitcoin with a sticker on her cart © Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

With a week to go, polls show the majority of Salvadorans are against the idea, and on the streets of the capital, few said they were prepared to switch to using the digital currency.

Small, sporadic protests by groups from pensioners to unions took place through the week, and a digital specialist who had spoken out against the plan was detained by police without an arrest warrant.

“I don’t know anything about it and I don’t want to learn either, I’m one of those people who says: no way, I won’t use it,” said Guadalupe Escobar, 35, who sells bread at a roundabout in the capital San Salvador.

Out of employees and owners from more than 20 different enterprises surveyed by the Financial Times in San Salvador — from informal street food stands to coffee shops chains — three said they knew they would accept bitcoin. The rest had not started preparing or rejected the idea.

Bukele’s government is rolling out a digital bitcoin wallet called “Chivo” — slang for “cool” — in the coming days with $30 in bitcoin free for every user. Across the country, Chivo ATMs will allow consumers to buy bitcoin or convert it into cash with the government absorbing commission costs.

A motorcycle repair shop in Aguilares that accepts bitcoin as a payment method
This motorcycle repair shop in Aguilares accepts bitcoin as a payment method © Jose Cabezas/Reuters

The move has excited cryptocurrency advocates abroad. Juan Pablo Thieriot, chief executive of Uphold, a digital platform that enables payments and trading in cryptocurrencies, national currencies and precious metals, said El Salvador’s move made “a ton of sense”.

This was because the dollarised country needed better alternatives to dodge the negative effects of the US government’s giant stimulus package on the currency.

“You see something like a . . . six or eight trillion [dollar] debasement exercise where most of the benefit is going to US citizens . . . and you are not the beneficiary of that,” he told the FT. “You would logically look for something else.”

The country’s large retail businesses are preparing to accept bitcoin and expect a September bump in sales from the extra liquidity, said Leonor Selva, executive director of private sector association ANEP, but what will happen beyond that is unclear.

“The government is preparing more of a brand or product launch than public policy,” Selva said.

In response to questions, the government said it would publish more information in the coming days.

The inspiration for the bold move was a project called Bitcoin Beach in El Zonte, a laid-back surf town a 50-kilometre drive from the capital, where tourists and locals are already using the cryptocurrency.

In 2019, an anonymous US crypto “early adopter” began funding community work paid in bitcoin in the town and now a team of mostly young Salvadorans works to promote its use.

Idalia Mejia sells pupusas — a popular Salvadoran corn patty often filled with cheese or meat — in bitcoin in the town and thinks it is good for attracting clients, but tries not to hold on to it. “I have lost out when it’s gone down,” the 49-year-old said. “I prefer not to have it.”

In the past year, the price of bitcoin has soared from about $10,000 to more than $60,000 and it is currently worth a little under $50,000.

Jorge Valenzuela, one of the project leaders, estimates that about half the town’s residents use it. Some save it, he said, but for others it is convenient for transactions in a nation where 70 per cent lack access to financial services.

Across the country, anyone with access to technology will by law have to accept bitcoin from Tuesday, although the three pages of government regulations do not mention penalties for non-compliance.

Apart from the initial incentive, the Chivo wallet will allow immediate conversion into dollars, backed by a recently approved $150m fund. Some economists question whether that is big enough, and say that a fall in the price of bitcoin would put the government under broader fiscal pressure.

“If, for example, taxes are paid in cryptoassets, while expenditures remain primarily in dollars, there would be significant pressure on the exchange market, and on the level of international reserves,” Torino Capital said in a note.

El Salvador’s central bank did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University who has advised emerging market nations on currency issues, said bitcoin made it virtually impossible for banks to comply with “know your customer” rules, and that the country risked a red flag from the anti-money laundering Financial Action Task Force.

“It isn’t a currency, it’s a very speculative asset,” said Hanke, a longtime advocate of dollarisation. “There is a lot of risk associated with bitcoin and that risk will be borne by the taxpayers.”

Additional reporting by Michael Stott in London

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