Weekly reading – 28th August 2021

What I wrote last week

My review of three books: 1/ Stray reflections; 2/ An ugly truth and 3/ Obviously awesome

Business

Facebook says post that cast doubt on covid-19 vaccine was most popular on the platform from January through March. The fact that this article was published on a Saturday means that Facebook doesn’t want too many people to see it. I honestly can see the bull case for Facebook. However, it will be remiss to not mention the monumental challenge of content moderation that the company has to face. Because when false information runs rampage on its platforms, it may affect the engagement of users; which in turn can adversely affect advertising that is Facebook’s bread and butter.

Why You Can’t Find Everything You Want at Grocery Stores. Retailers are suffering from supply shortages; which is exacerbated by higher-than-expected demand. But if these hiccups are overcome, it means that there will be a growing retail segment in the coming months and by extension, likely, a healthy economy.

Diem: A Dream Deferred? Facebook has a lot going to their advantage: almost limitless resources, four of the most popular social networks in the world, 1/3 of the global population are its users, a money printing machine that is growing at a scary clip. But there are a couple of challenges that Facebook will have a hard time to overcome. First, it’s content moderation. Should I say: content moderation without pissing off anybody. As you can see, the task sounds almost impossible. When you moderate content by people with vastly different ideologies, you are almost certain to upset somebody. Facebook doesn’t have the luxury of having upset users or lawmakers. Hence, it’s not a problem that Facebook will easily solve. Second, public trust. The company has been around for almost 20 years and it has not garnered a lot of trust. As long as it continues to rely on advertising, capturing data and more importantly be embroiled in misinformation, the public trust will likely continue to evade them. As the article from Coindesk pointed out, trust is paramount in the payments/finance world. How on Earth would Facebook succeed in it?

The Digital Payment Giant That Adds Up. Merchants are going down the omni-channel route that allows shoppers to shop in multiple ways. This will be the key to Adyen’s growth. I like the fact that they prefer building in-house and maintaining the one-ness of their platform to acquiring capabilities from other companies through M&A and bundling different tech stacks into one. Working at a company that suffers from systems not talking to each other, I know first-hand how that could become a significant problem in no time. In addition, I really look forward to Adyen coming to the U.S with a banking license. I am not sure the folks at Marqeta share my enthusiasm.

Buying a bank turned LendingClub around. Now the fintech industry is watching. It requires a lot of work and preparation to get a banking license. The benefits of owning a charter; however, include less dependency and more control over your own fate, margin and operations.

What I found interesting

Inside Afghanistan’s cryptocurrency underground as the country plunges into turmoil. One can argue that cryptocurrency can be a savior in crises like what is going on in Afghanistan. The thing is that if something requires there to be a crisis to drive adoption, I am not sure that something is as good or revolutionary as some may think.

An immense mystery older than Stonehenge. It’s profoundly impressive to me that prehistoric people could transport stones that weighed tons to the top of a hill 6000 years ago. Think about that for a second. They must not have had all the tools that we came up with up hundreds of years later. It’s just extraordinary. If I ever have enough money and time, Gobekli Tepe, Machu Picchu, Egypt and Greece are where I wish to go.

Bigger vehicles are directly resulting in more deaths of people walking. Take a trip to Europe and you’ll see how absurdly big vehicles in the U.S are compared to those in Europe. And the implications aren’t necessarily positive. I’d argue that it’s considerably better to have smaller vehicles or fewer vehicles on the roads.

European Sleeper Trains Make a Comeback. I really wish that Americans would share the same enthusiasm about travelling by train as Europeans do. Personally, I enjoyed the train ride from Chicago to Omaha. If there were a reliable Wifi, I’d take trains every single time over flights and especially driving.

Apparently, there is a 2021 Global Crypto Adoption Index and Vietnam is ranked as #1. Below are the two reasons that experts say are why Vietnam’s adoption is so high. I am not sure how I should feel about it. On one hand, this index is not negative in nature. Hence, the #1 ranking certainly feels good. On the other hand, the alleged reason that young people don’t know what to do with ETF is alarming. That implies a lack of understanding in investing and a tendency to gamble in cryptocurrencies.

“We heard from experts that people in Vietnam have a history of gambling, and the young, tech-savvy people don’t have much to do with their funds in terms of investing in a traditional ETF, both of which drive crypto adoption,”

Source: CNBC

Stats that may interest you

In 2019, 70% of music in Japan was consumed via CDs

eCommerce made up 13.3% of total retail sales in the U.S in the 2nd quarter of 2021, indicating that the Covid effect has tapered off

46% of retail BNPL shoppers didn’t use their credit cards because they wanted to avoid high interest rates

The U.S online lottery ticket market will reach $2.3 billion by the end of 2021, a 25% YoY growth

PayPal made strides towards being a Super App

PayPal amplified its efforts to become THE Super App for consumers’ financial needs with several big announcements in the past few days.

  • Giant Eagle enables PayPal and Venmo at all of its 474 stores. This is the first grocery chain in the country that accepts PayPal and Venmo at checkout. To complete an in-store order, users can simply open their PayPal or Venmo app and have the QR code shown in the app scanned by the store cashier. As an incentive to promote the adoption of this feature, PayPal will send $10 in cash back to anyone after they make the first purchase of at least $40 at Giant Eagle
  • ACI Worldwide partners with PayPal to bring mobile wallet options to ACI’s bill clients. ACI Worldwide is a leading company in real-time digital payments with numerous clients in various industries such as consumer finance, government, education, healthcare, insurance, telephone and cable, and utilities. By virtue of the new collaboration, bill payers can now make payments on ACI’s client platforms through their PayPal or Venmo wallet
  • Yesterday, Fiserv announced a new feature that enables business-to-consumer payments deposited to PayPal or Venmo accounts. PayPal or Venmo users will be able receive payments from gig economy companies, insurance firms or tax refunds from the federal governments to their PayPal or Venmo account
  • Last but definitely not least, starting October 1, 2021, the company is going to drop late fees for BNPL customers globally.

PayPal is one of a few companies that are known globally. Anyone that regularly shops online must be familiar with their iconic blue button on online merchants’ checkout page. Strong in processing online payments, PayPal; however, hasn’t been as popular with in-store checkout. Personally, I rarely see a store that accepts PayPal as a payment option. The company is well aware of that weakness and planning to address it. In the very last earnings call, the CEO mentioned that they were going to aggressively go into stores. The partnership with Giant Eagle is proof of that. Even though there are only 474 stores in the chain, this is a great first step. I imagine that PayPal will try to use data acquired from this partnership to demonstrate to prospect partners the benefits of allowing PayPal products at checkout. Plus, grocery is a staple category to consumers. If they are accustomed to checking out with PayPal/Venmo, they will be more likely to use it for other purchases as well.

PayPal has been growing its bill payment service for a while. In the previous earning call, the company cited growing bill payment volume as one of the reasons for its decreasing take-rate. The partnership with ACI Worldwide will likely grow the processing volume yet suppress that take-rate further for the foreseeable future. ACI Worldwide supports around 4,000 customers in the US and according to one study, Americans spends $2.75 trillion a year on recurring bills. Even if this move helps PayPal gain 1% of that volume, that’s another $27.5 billion a year added to the company’s U.S bill payment volume. Given that it processes $350+ billion in a quarter WORLDWIDE for ALL services, I suspect that’s the lift the management will be pleased with. I really like this partnership with ACI. Instead of going out there and going through hoops to work with numerous companies, PayPal can now be available on 4,000 checkout pages in a short amount of time. Bill payments are such a critical function in most adults’ life. Convincing consumers to use PayPal/Venmo to pay bills will create a usage habit that is difficult to break.

Here is PayPal from its 2020 annual report:

Transaction expense is primarily composed of the costs we incur to accept a customer’s funding source of payment. These costs include fees paid to payment processors and other financial institutions to draw funds from a customer’s credit or debit card, bank account, or other funding source they have stored in their digital wallet. Transaction expense also includes fees paid to disbursement partners to enable a transaction. We refer to the allocation of funding sources used by our consumers as our “funding mix.” The cost of funding a transaction with a credit or debit card is generally higher than the cost of funding a transaction from a bank or through internal sources such as a PayPal or Venmo account balance or PayPal Credit.

Hence, the more transactions are funded through bank accounts or PayPal balance, the better it is financially for PayPal. Asking consumers to transfer funds from a checking account to a PayPal/Venmo before making a purchase using that balance is futile. It’s inconvenient and cumbersome. The collaboration with Fiserv helps PayPal go around that challenge. Additionally, having a balance motivates users to be more active. If a friend of mine sends $50 to my PayPal account, I will be more willing to use it for my next purchase than I would without that $50 balance. A few months ago, Square bought the tax business of Credit Karma and integrated it into Cash App. I wrote in my thought on the acquisition

In essence, it benefits Square when customers have balance in their Cash App. The more balance there is, the more useful Cash App is to customers and the more revenue & profit Square can potentially earn. I imagine that once Credit Karma’s tax tool is integrated into Cash App, there will be a function that directs tax returns to customers’ Cash App. When the tax returns are deposited into Cash App, customers can either spend them; which either increases the ecosystem’s value (P2P), or deposit the fund back to their bank accounts. But if customers already direct the tax returns to Cash App in the first place, it’s unlikely the money will be redirected again back to a checking account. As Cash App users become more engaged and active, Square will look more attractive to prospect sellers whose business yield Square a much much higher gross margin than the company’s famous Cash App.

The integration of Credit Karma Tax into Cash App did happen. The same logic can be applied here. In addition to lowering its transaction cost, PayPal benefits in different ways from having more balance in its wallet. Instead of acquiring a tax filing business like Square did with Credit Karma, PayPal collaborates with Fiserv to enable not only tax refunds, but also paycheck deposit or insurance payments. Less capital, more applications. What’s not to like?

The BNPL market is hotter than ever. Recently, Square paid an enormous sum of $29 billion for Afterpay. Merchants are racing to enable the feature due to the fear of missing out. Banks like Citi, Chase or Amex scramble to offer their own BNPL version. Even Apple is rumored to develop its own service for Apple Pay transactions. PayPal launched its PayPal in 4 in August 2020. Since then, the service has processed more than $3.5 billion in transaction volume, $1.5 billion of which took place in the last three months alone. Yesterday, with its policy to drop late fees for consumers, PayPal took a bold step towards gaining more market share in this red hot market.

Let’s talk quickly about how BNPL providers make money. There are some providers like Afterpay or Klarna that allow consumers to break down a purchase into several interest-free payments. To generate revenue, these providers charge consumers a fee for every late payment and merchants a fee that is much higher than the usual interchange rate in exchange for new business. On the other end of the spectrum, there are other companies like Affirm that charge consumers no fees, but levy interest on the purchase. For PayPal, it originally belonged to the first group of BNPL firms that offer interest-free payment plans. As a late comer, PayPal lets merchants use this service at no additional charge, apart from the usual commission rate. Today, to attract the end consumers, PayPal decides to drop late fees, a move that will force other competitors to copy to avoid losing grounds. I expect them to follow suit soon. Late fees only make up 9% of Afterpay’s revenue. The problems for these pure BNPL players are that 1/ they don’t have multiple touchpoints to consumers like PayPal and 2/ they are already not making money. Dropping late fees will make the road to profitability even tougher. For the likes of Affirm, I mean, what can they offer consumers and merchants that PayPal can’t?

All of these developments have one common goal: to make PayPal the go-app application for all things financial for us consumers. Just take a look at the breadth of services that PayPal can offer below. There are few companies that can do the same, let alone having 32 million merchants on the network and a brand name that is widely recognized across the globe.

PayPal's Consumer Services
PayPal’s Consumer Services

I expect in the next few quarters, PayPal will have:

  • A higher TPV
  • A lower take-rate due to more bill payments, P2P, especially from Venmo, the drop of BNPL late fees and less reliance on eBay
  • Higher loss rates
  • Higher cost of transactions simply because PayPal has to compensate the likes of ACI, Fiserv and Giant Eagle
  • Higher marketing expense as % of revenue

However, as a shareholder, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the company’s outlook with these moves. I look forward to hearing the management team discuss the ramifications in the future earnings calls.

Why Square paid the big bucks for Afterpay

Last Sunday, Square announced that it was going to acquire Afterpay, the Buy Now Pay Later provider from Australia, in a $29 billion all-stock deal. A lot has been said about this merger and the one bear case that I have seen quite often is that people questioned whether Square could actually build its own BNPL in-house and is wasting $29 billion on this deal. Below is how I think about it.

Before we go further, let’s take a minute to talk about these two companies in general. Afterpay was founded in Australia in 2014 by Nick Mornar and Anthony Eisen. The company allows shoppers to break purchases into four interest-free installments paid every two weeks. Afterpay charges merchants 3-4 times interchange rate in exchange for customer leads and the underwriting of the loans. Merchant revenue constitutes the majority of Afterpay revenue while late fees make up around 9% of the top line. Currently available in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S, the UK and Canada, Afterpay is launching services in a few European countries such as France, Italy and Spain.

Originally started as a payment company with a little credit card reader, Square has grown leaps and bounds over the years to become a publicly traded financial company with over 30 different services, a banking license and over $126 billion in market cap as of this writing. Square’s revenue comes from different sources. Bitcoin makes up more than 50% of Square’s revenue, even though the gross margin is only around 2%. The company sells POS hardware at a cost to merchants and charges them for used services. If merchants and customers want to receive funds instantly, they must pay Square a small fee. Square also offers merchants loans from which it earns interests. Last but not least, there is interchange revenue from millions of transactions processed through Cash App.

Square used to have a BNPL option which was discontinued due to the effects of Covid-19. Then why the sudden change of heart and why wouldn’t Square reactivate Square Installments instead of paying an enormous sum for Afterpay? First of all, it’s about international expansion. While Square is available in some overseas markets, 85% of its GMV is from the domestic front. Meanwhile, more than 50% of Afterpay’s GMV originates from non-US markets. Acquiring Afterpay gives Square quick access to those international markets and reduces reliance on its home market. Plus, it’s not really easy to build up a BNPL service from scratch. In addition to having to acquire merchants and users, to be a BNPL provider, one has to deal with a lot of regulation hurdles. These are the things that currently Afterpay does better than Square in non-US markets. Hence, this purchase will help Square bypass all the trouble and acquire these skills quickly.

Second, customer acquisition. Afterpay’s main clientele includes Enterprise merchants wanting to leverage its popularity with consumers. On the other hand, while Square’s fastest growing segment is merchants whose GMV is higher than $500,000 a year, I doubt they are big enough that we can call them Enterprise. Hence, this acquisition enables the acquirer to move up the ladder and into a new market. The U.S is responsible for 62% and 43% of Afterpay’s active customers and GMV respectively. However, I’d say that in terms of reach to U.S consumers, Square is the far better company in this equation and has multiple touchpoints that it can use to acquire new users (Credit Karma tax, Cash App P2P, Bitcoin trading). Therefore, Square can definitely assist Afterpay in user acquisition. On the other hand, Afterpay gives Square access to the former’s high income customer base in coastal cities where Square isn’t as competitive as in the South.

Third, merchant acquisition and retention. Merchants pay BNPL providers because of not only consumer preferences, but also the new business that these providers bring due to their marketing reach. For instance, Klarna reported 22 million customer lead referrals in the U.S December 2020 alone. This extra revenue is what merchants, especially smaller ones, crave and are willing to pay for. With the Discovery tool from Afterpay, Square can strengthen the relationship with merchants and keep them in the ecosystem. The more merchants they have, the more their Cash App can appeal to consumers and the healthier the whole ecosystem will be. As a result, the addition of the Discovery tool is strategically beneficial to Square.

Last but not least, this merger is about the competition. Square ‘s main challenger in the race to become the Super Financial App is PayPal. Formerly a P2P platform and a primary checkout option on eBay, PayPal has transformed itself into a financial service and a formidable eCommerce player. It provides both merchants and consumers with multiple different services to facilitate in-store and online transactions. With PayPal, shoppers can pay in stores and online with QR Code, tap-to-pay, mobile wallet, debit cards, credit cards and PayPal Credit. In the past few months, the company has ramped up significantly efforts in cryptocurrency trading, one of the selling points of Cash App. Additionally, PayPal recently launched Zettle, its card reader, in the US, a direct threat to Square’s bread and butter. PayPal’s own BNPL, PayPal in 4, has facilitated $3.5 billion in GMV in a few markets since its launch in August 2020, $1.5 of which came in the last 90 days alone. As mentioned above, Square no longer has an installment service.

Outside of the U.S, PayPal and Klarna, the global leader in BNPL, share a lot of market overlap with Square and Afterpay. This acquisition of Afterpay gives Square an instant counterweight to these competitors. Could Square build its own BNPL muscles? Absolutely, I have no doubt about it. But it will take a lot of time and resources for Square to play catch-up. By the time the company could form a respectable presence in the markets, PayPal and Klarna would already sign more merchants, gain more market share and establish a purchase habit as well as brand name with consumers. It would be incredibly tough to overcome these advantages. With Afterpay, Square won’t have to start from scratch and can compete right away with their rivals.

In summary, from my perspective, there are legitimate reasons why Square made such a big splash. Afterpay brings to the table what Square needs for its growth plan and more importantly, it does so instantly. Of course, M&A deals fail all the time. Synergies are often overstated. Cultural clashes tend to be overlooked. Execution doesn’t materialize as expected. Management teams butt heads. All kinds of trouble can happen to derail a partnership. This one isn’t immune to such risks. But I hope that one day we can look back at this deal as an important milestone and lever that propels Square to incredible heights.

Figure 1 – An example of regulatory hurdles that a BNPL provider has to deal with. Source: Afterpay
Figure 2 – Afterpay can help Square move up market. Source: Square + Afterpay
Figure 3 – Afterpay can expand to coastal cities in the U.S and acquire higher income clientele. Source: Square + Afterpay
Figure 3 – Integration of Afterpay into Cash App. Source: Square + Afterpay
Fincog Overview of BNPL Providers, Ranked by Size
Figure 5 – GMV of Global BNPL Providers. Source: Fintechnews
Figure 6 – Klarna’s footprint. Source: Klarna

Weekly reading – 24th July 2021

What I wrote last week

My review of From Junk To Gold

Business

An excerpt from an upcoming book on what went wrong with WeWork. This should be talked about in business schools as one of the examples of why egos and delusional ambition can lead to disasters. These guys are richer than many many people on Earth and have more money than most folks can earn in a lifetime. Nonetheless, it’s staggering to see their silly actions.

The Verge has an interesting interview with Mark Zuckerberg. The interview touches upon a lot of things but there are two that I want to quickly highlight here. Mark talks about how people shouldn’t expect that there is no transgression on his company’s platforms. That is always bound to happen. Instead, what people should expect is that Facebook is there to police the platform when it happens and puts in place integrity systems to deter bad demeanor. Secondly, I think the idea of interoperability is great, but not 100% perfect. That’s just how it is in life. There are always advantages and disadvantages to everything. Apple’s business model doesn’t involve interoperability that these guys advocate for, but in terms of net benefits to the society, has Apple been a positive force? I’d say so.

If you are not familiar with BNPL market, here is a good BNPL industry report

FICO Score’s Hold on the Credit Market Is Slipping. Not great news for the parent company of FICO score.

Grab taps Adyen to extend BNPL offering across Southeast Asia

What I found interesting

Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education. My experience is that Master’s Degrees often still hold values because hiring companies value them. There are some exceptional programs that are worth the investment, but many aren’t. It’s crazy to think that so many people got into a huge debt to get something that is far less valuable

Giant tsunami from dino-killing asteroid impact revealed in fossilized ‘megaripples’. I can’t even bring myself to imagine what a 1-mile high tsunami looks like. It’s simply impossibly terrifying.

Lost world revealed by human, Neanderthal relics washed up on North Sea beaches

Stats that may interest you

20% of Americans think the U.S government uses Covid-vaccines to plant a microchip in their bodies. Use this info however you want

Lifetime emissions for an EV in Europe are between 66 and 69 percent lower compared to that of a gas-guzzling vehicle, the analysis found. In the US, an EV produces between 60 to 68 percent fewer emissions. In China, which uses more coal, an EV results in between 37 to 45 percent fewer emissions. In India, it’s between 19 to 34 percent lower.

Source: The Verge

Weekly reading – 6th March 2021

What I wrote last week

My take-aways from Berkshire Hathaway’s latest shareholder letter

A quick look at Buy Now Pay Later

Business

Demand for semi conductors exceeded supply by 30%

A look into Google’s failure to build games

A higher saving rate in American households is expected to boos the economy in the future

Macy’s, Gap, Neiman Marcus Will Let You Buy Now, Pay Later. The piece has some good information on the “Buy Now Pay Later” trend

WSJ profile of Roblox

A very nice post on Reddit’s history and its potential that has never been realized

The New Era of Social Media Isn’t About Feeds

A very interesting piece on payments in Vietnam. From my observation, it’s true that a lot of Vietnamese skip credit cards and go straight ahead to e-wallet.

Google is going to stop selling ads based on individualized tracking. As users are more conscious of their privacy and the topic becomes more scrutinized, I do think it’s in Google’s best interest to start looking at a new way to deliver effective ads. The macro environment is changing. The conditions are less favorable to their way of doing business. Why sticking to the old way? Google has enough talent and resources to pivot and innovate. If I were a Google shareholder, I would be happy about the news

Rolling Stones interview with Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey

What I found interesting

Taking on the tech giants: the lawyer fighting the power of algorithmic systems

Africa’s biggest air polluter is now battling sewage flows into a major water source

SoundCloud announced changes to how they compensate artists. The move is said to help less popular creators, but how much exactly the help would be remains to be seen.

Using Apple Silicon (M1) as a cloud engineer, two months in

How to operate an airport in Antartica

Stats that you may find interesting

21% of Vietnam’s eCommerce spend was from Digital/Mobile Wallet

Instacart claims that they are serving 85% of US households

Kohl’s partnership with Amazon added 2 million customers in 2020

If the world adopted a plant-based diet we would reduce global agricultural land use from 4 to 1 billion hectares

A Look At “Buy Now Pay Later”

“Buy Now Pay Later” (BNPL) lets consumers break down purchases into smaller installments, either for free or with a charge. Sounds familiar? BNPL isn’t a new concept. Your credit card is essentially the OG of BNPL. When you put a big purchase (like a mattress or a new smart TV) on your credit card, you can spread out the outstanding balance into smaller chunks over a few months. If you make prompt payments every cycle, there will be no finance charge or late fees. Otherwise, you’ll incur penalties which can be fairly expensive as credit cards’ APR is usually in the high teens or the 20s.

What is the difference between BNPL and credit cards then? While credit cards can be convenient, securing approval isn’t always easy, especially for low FICO customers. Even though possession of a credit card can boost one’s FICO in the long term, upon an application for a new card, consumers will likely receive a hard FICO pull which hurts their standing in the short term; the price that some customers are reluctant to pay. Furthermore, it can take a couple of weeks for consumers to receive their plastics. With BNPL, consumers can receive a decision from BNPL online in a few minutes and there is only a soft FICO pull that doesn’t hurt their credit standing in the short term. As Covid-19 forced businesses to move from brick-and-mortar to online and it placed significant financial constraints on consumers, it created a perfect environment for BNPL to thrive.

Who are the main players and what do they offer?

  • Afterpay is among the biggest BNPL lenders in the US. Hailing from Australia, the company only entered the US market in 2018. Remarkably, the US has quickly become the biggest contribution to the company’s revenue in only 3 years. Afterpay doesn’t charge interest. Consumers make the down payment at the time of the purchase and have to pay off balance in 6 weeks (a payment every 2 weeks) to avoid late fees.
  • Klarna is a Swedish startup that offers payment and financial services, including BNPL. It entered the US market in 2015. Klarna allows consumers to make interest-free installments within 30 days or 6 weeks. It also offers high-interest financing options that spread out payments in a longer term.
  • US consumers should be very familiar with Paypal. The company launched its BNPL offering last August. Paypal’s BNPL is similar to Afterpay’s, allowing consumers to break down purchases into 4 interest-free installments.
  • Affirm was founded by ex Paypal, Max Levchin in 2012. Its model is slightly different from other BNPL lenders’ in a sense that Affirm doesn’t charge consumers usage or late fees. Payment options include monthly interest-free installments in 3 months or installments with interest over a longer period.

These startups have played an important role in popularizing BNPL. Now, banks joined the party. Amex launched its BNPL a couple of years ago, but on a fairly limited basis. Since then, it has opened it up to more customers. Chase also introduced its own version called “My Chase Plan”. These banks let consumers make interest-free installments with a monthly fee equal to a percentage of the purchase’s amount. This gives borrowers incentive to pay off their balance as soon as possible, because the longer the plan is, the more fee they will have to pay. Amex even lets its customers combine multiple purchases into one BNPL plan. Unlike startup BNPL providers, these banks impose a minimum requirement of $100 per purchase, along with other criteria, to ensure that customers aren’t overextended.

 InterestInstallment FrequencyFee to use BNPLLate fees
After Pay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Affirm0% – 30%Monthly, up to 12 monthsNoneNone
Amex0%Every month% of each eligible plan’s total amount. Yes
Chase0%Every month between 3-18 months% of each eligible plan’s total amount.Yes
Klarna0% – 19.99%Every 2 weeks or in 30 days for 0%Every month up to 36 months with APRNoneYes
Paypal0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
Quadpay0%Every 2 weeksNoneYes
 AmexChase
How many plans can an account have?10 active plans at a time10 active or pending plans at a time
Minimum purchase requirement$100$100
Penalties for paying off plans earlyNoNo
Rewards on BNPL purchasesYesYes
Are refunds/returns automatically applied to an account’s balance?No, customers must call the issuerNo, customers must call the issuer
Can authorized users set up plans?Only card owners or Authorized Account Managers with Full Access can set up a planOnly card owners can set up a plan

What do merchants and consumers get from BNPL?

For shoppers, BNPL lets them spread out a big purchase into smaller interest-free installments quickly and without a credit card. As mentioned above, the convenience and speed that BNPL brings are even more attractive during Covid-19, especially to younger shoppers who may not build their credit yet or may not have a credit card. Klarna and Afterpay claimed that 90% of their transactions were with debit cards, and 72% of those customers had enough balance on their checking account to cover 2-5x the purchase amount. To lock in customers, BNPL providers such as Klarna and Afterpay launched loyalty programs respectively with additional benefits for their most engaged customers. Klarna’s rewards program Vibe was launched first in the US in June 2020. The no-fee program allows customers to earn 1 point for every dollar spent. The points can be later redeemed for gift cards. Klarna reported that the program exceeded more than 1 million members. On the other hand, Afterpay’s loyalty program Pulse offers a different set of benefits. Registered members in the program can opt to pay nothing up front, choose to reschedule up to 6 payment dates and buy Afterpay gift cards. With Amex and Chase, shoppers accrue points to their bank rewards accounts and can be redeemed later.

However, there are risks for consumers when using BNPL services. A study found that many shoppers incurred late fees, not because they couldn’t make payments financially, but because they lost track of their payment schedule. While this prospect is real, BNPL providers are taking steps to make it easier for shoppers to pay on time. Klarna lets customers set up automatic payments and send out notifications. In the long term, it will be better for BNPL providers to rely too much on late fees. The second risk lies in the consumer protection or lack thereof and the difficulty when it comes to refunds/returns. Credit card issuers have to stop payments when they are disputed. With other BNPL providers, consumers first have to contact sellers, get credit and then proceed to the next steps with the lenders and the outcome is less guaranteed.

From a merchant’s perspective, BNPL brings more customers as the service providers spend a lot of money on marketing and user acquisition. Regardless of whether borrowers make payments on time, merchants get paid in full up front and they don’t have to bear the risk of chargebacks or fraud. In return, though, merchants have to relinquish a fee for each transaction to BNPL providers that can be multiple times higher than what they usually pay in interchange. Plus, merchants risk losing their relationship with customers. I wrote about the importance of owning your relation with your customers. If shoppers feel more attached to BNPL providers than merchants, in the same way shoppers feel more attached to Amazon than the sellers on Amazon’s website, merchants run a risk of losing bargaining power.

BNPL adoption

Because it brings flexibility in payments, BNPL became a hit with shoppers in 2020. Klarna reported that at the end of 2020, it had 14 million registered consumers, 3.5 million monthly active users and 60,000 downloads in December 2020 alone. As of Feb 2021, Affirm had about 4.5 million users that had at least one transaction in the last 12 months, up from 3 million users from one year prior, an increase of 50% YoY. Likewise, Afterpay had 8 million active users as of Feb 2021, up from 5.6 million in June 2020, and the US is now its biggest market. Paypal introduced its “Pay in 4” product in the US market in August 2020 and said that it was the company’s most successful launch ever. 

The rise of BNPL also benefits merchants. In December 2020 alone, Klarna drove 22 million lead referrals to more than 6,000 US retailers. Reportedly, Sephora’s in-store and online orders through Klarna in the US saw an increase in average order value by 65% and 35% respectively. Additionally, Afterpay delivered 45 million lead referrals to its partners globally in December 2020. As the US is Afterpay’s biggest segment and the world’s biggest retail market, it likely made up more than half of those referrals. Over the last 12 months, Afterpay reported a 141% increase in the number of active merchants in the US, from 7,400 in Dec 2019 to almost 18,000 in Dec 2020. Furthermore, Affirmgrew its merchant network by 39% during the last 6 months of 2020, to almost 8,000. 

According to the latest Global Payment Reports by FIS, BNPL will make up 4.5% of North America’s eCommerce in 2024, up from 1.6% in 2020. 

How do BNPL providers make money?

For providers that have an option to charge interest up front like Affirm, interest income can be a significant source of revenue. In fact, it’s Affirm’s second biggest revenue stream. Late fees can be another stream, though, as I already mentioned, they should constitute a small percentage of a provider’s income. Afterpay’s late fee only makes up 7% of the company’s revenue. Most of these providers make money from a fee that merchants have to pay them on every transaction. This fee helps BNPL providers offset the cost of fund placed on the balance allocated to shoppers, the interchange fee that these providers later have to pay to card issuers when shoppers make payments and operating expenses. As BNPL lenders become more popular, I suspect they will eventually launch advertising services whose revenue is high margin, compared to their current margin structure. For banks such as Amex and Chase, a minimum purchase requirement of $100+ means a higher interchange revenue. Plus, they charge customers a monthly fee to use their BNPL service. On the other hand, banks have to incur more expenses as they are much more regulated.

In short, BNPL is a trend born out of unaddressed needs of consumers and accelerated by a special market environment (Covid-19). It’s similar to something that once you saw, you can’t unsee. Once consumers experience it and come to like it, as evidenced by the rapid growth of BNPL providers, I don’t see how it will go away in the future. It will be interesting to see 1/ how these providers work to be more efficient, grow their machine learning capabilities so that they can minimize their losses, and acquire users and 2/ how lawmakers catch up to what’s going on in the market and what ramifications potentially new laws would bring.