finance

China's Robinhood rivals pile into the crypto craze as they look to compete overseas


In this photo illustration a Bitcoin logo seen displayed on a smartphone with stock market percentages in the background.

Omar Marques | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

BEIJING — Two of China’s rivals to stock trading app Robinhood are looking to cryptocurrencies as a way to compete overseas.

The companies, Futu and Tiger Brokers, disclosed during earnings calls last month they are applying for licenses in Singapore and the U.S. that would allow local customers to trade digital currencies.

The move comes as cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin have climbed back into the spotlight in recent months, while Chinese regulators have increased their efforts to limit speculation in the market. In the last few weeks, authorities issued new warnings against digital currency trading and a crackdown on bitcoin mining — an energy-heavy computing process that allows participants to earn bitcoin.

But in the financial trading world, demand for cryptocurrencies is high as bitcoin’s price surged to record levels above $60,000, before dropping sharply to around $35,000.

Robinhood, which launched bitcoin and ethereum trading in the U.S. in early 2018, has added 3 million customers a month this year for its crypto business. In April, U.S.-based cryptocurrency trading site Coinbase debuted on the Nasdaq.

“We do hear a lot of interest from our users across the world in terms of crypto. We have listened to that,” Arthur Chen, Futu’s chief financial officer, told CNBC last week. He said the company hopes to offer cryptocurrency-related products as soon as the end of this year.

Both Futu and Tiger Brokers got their start primarily from Chinese employees of major tech companies like Alibaba and Baidu. Since these companies are listed in the U.S., that piqued their employees’ interest in trading stocks abroad.

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However, both companies are increasingly focused on markets outside mainland China. In addition to essentially banning yuan-bitcoin transactions, Beijing tightly controls capital flows out of the mainland.

Futu has gained 100,000 paying clients in Singapore less than three months since launching there in early March, Chen said. He said about one-fourth of new paying clients in the first quarter came from Singapore and the U.S.

In the international retail trading market, the two companies face competition not just from Robinhood but traditional players such as Interactive Brokers. Both Futu and Tiger seek to attract customers with an in-app social network where users can swap trading ideas and watch investor education courses.

By the end of March, Futu said it had 789,652 customers with assets in their trading accounts, more than three times that of a year ago.

Tiger said the number of customers with deposits more than doubled in the first quarter from a year ago to 376,000.

Cooling interest in IPOs

Customers are very interested in cryptocurrencies and Coinbase’s stock listing attracted new users, Tiger Brokers’ CEO Tianhua Wu told CNBC last week.

But he said users’ overall interest in initial public offerings has cooled off from last year. While exuberance over IPOs then might have generated $1 billion or more worth of orders around a listing, now the offerings are drawing far less in terms of orders, Wu said.

Last week, both Futu and Tiger Brokers were added to MSCI stock indexes, which are tracked by trillions of global investment dollars.

Read more about cryptocurrencies from CNBC Pro

— CNBC’s Kate Rooney contributed to this report.



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