As U.S.-China tensions rumble on, fintech unicorn Airwallex pushes into Latin America with Mexico deal

  • Global fintech giant Airwallex said it has acquired MexPago, a rival payments company based out of Mexico, for an undisclosed sum.
  • The deal will help Airwallex, which is backed by the likes of Tencent and Li-Kashing, Hong Kong’s richest man, expand in the Americas.
  • Latin America is a particularly attractive spot for fintech companies, not least because of its high proportion of young people in the population.

Global fintech giant Airwallex on Thursday said it has agreed to acquire MexPago, a rival payments company based out of Mexico, for an undisclosed sum to help the firm expand its Latin America footprint.

The company, which competes with the likes of PayPal, Stripe, and Block, sells cross-border payment services to mainly small and medium-sized enterprises. Airwallex makes money by pocketing a fee each time a transaction is made.

The deal, which is subject to regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions, marks a major push from Airwallex into Latin America, a market that has become more attractive for fintech firms thanks to a primarily younger population and increasing online penetration.

Jack Zhang, Airwallex’s CEO, said the company was looking at Mexico as something as a hedge as it deals with geopolitical and economic uncertainty going on between the U.S. and China.

“U.S. people export to Mexico to sell to the consumer there,” Zhang told CNBC. “Because of the supply chain, you can also export out of Mexico to other countries like the United States.”

“You get both the inflow and outflow of money,” he added. “That’s really what we like the most. We can take a global company to Mexico and also help the global companies making payments to the supply chain.”

U.S.-China trade tensions have escalated in recent years, as Washington seeks to address what it sees as China’s race to the bottom on trade.

The U.S. alleges China has been deliberately devaluing its currency by buying lots of U.S. dollars, thereby making Chinese exports cheaper and U.S. exports more expensive, and worsening the U.S. trade deficit with China.

China has sought to address these concerns, agreeing to “substantially reduce” the U.S. trade deficit by committing to “significantly increases” its purchases of American goods, although it’s struggled to make good on those commitments.

“Mexico is one of the largest populations in Latin America,” Zhang added. “As the trade war intensifies in China and the US, a lot is shifting from Asia to Mexico.”

″[Mexico] is very close to the U.S. Labour is cheaper compared to the U.S. domestically. A lot of the supply chain is shipping there. There’s a lot of opportunity from e-commerce as well.”

A maturing fintech

Airwallex operates around the world in markets including the U.S., Canada, China, the U.K., Australia, and Singapore. The Australia-founded company is the second-most valuable unicorn there, after design and presentations software startup Canva, which was last valued at $40 billion.

The company, whose customers include Papaya Global, Zip, Shein and Navan, processes more than $50 billion in a single year. It has also partnered with the likes of American Express, Shopify and Brex, to help it expand its services internationally.

It has been a tough environment for fintech companies to operate in lately, given how interest rates have risen sharply. That has made it more costly for startup firms to raise capital from investors.

For its part, Airwallex has raised more than $900 million in venture capital to date from investors including Salesforce Ventures, Sequoia, Tencent and Lone Pine Capital. The company was last valued at $5.6 billion.

At this stage we are still expanding against our mission, which is to enable those smaller businesses to operate anywhere in the world and keep building software on top.

Jack Zhang

CEO, Airwallex

Zhang said that the company is at a stage where it has reached enough maturity to consider an initial public offering — the company says it now processes more than $50 billion in annualized transactions. However, Airwallex won’t embark on the IPO route until it gets to a certain amount of annual revenue, Zhang added.

Zhang is targeting $100 million of annual recurring revenue (ARR) for its software business within the next year or two. Once Airwallex reaches this point, he says, it will then look at a public listing.

“At this stage we are still expanding against our mission, which is to enable those smaller businesses to operate anywhere in the world and keep building software on top … to protect our margins [and] grow our margins from a cost point of view, not just infrastructure,” Zhang said.

MexPago offers much of the same services as Airwallex — multi-currency accounts for small and medium-sized businesses, foreign exchange services, and payment processing — but there are a few more payment methods it has on offer which Airwallex doesn’t currently provide.

Why Latin America?

A big selling point of the MexPago deal, Zhang said, is the ability to obtain a regulatory license in Mexico without having to embark on a long process of applying with the central bank. The company has secured an Institution of Electronic Payment Funds (IFPE) license from MexPago.

That will allow Airwallex’s customers, both in Mexico and around the world, to gain access to local payment methods such as SPEI, Mexico’s interbank electronic payment system, and OXXO, a voucher-based payment method that lets shoppers order things online, get a voucher, and then fulfill their order with cash.

“The ability to access the license for the native infrastructure over there will give us a significant advantage with our global proposition,” Zhang told CNBC.

Airwallex has seen huge levels of growth in the Americas in the past year — the company reported a 460% jump in revenues there year-over-year.

Airwallex isn’t the only company seeing the potential in Latin America.

SumUp, the British payments company, has been active in Latin America since 2013, opening an office in Brazil back in 2013. The firm’s CFO Hermione McKee told CNBC in June at the Money 20/20 conference that it plans to ramp up its expansion in the region.

“We’ve had very strong success in Latin America, in particular, Chile recently,” McKee told CNBC in an interview.

“We are looking at launching new countries over the coming months.”

More than 156 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean are between the ages of 15 and 29, accounting for over a fourth of its population. These consumers tend to be more digital-native and mistrusting of established banks.

Source: CNBC