By Alec Macfarlane
HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - China’s “insurtech” star is overemphasising the tech part of that combination. Zhong An was founded by the chairmen of internet heavyweights Alibaba and Tencent, Jack Ma and Pony Ma, and their counterpart at Ping An, the insurer, Ma Mingzhe. A mooted valuation of up to $12.9 billion for this financial technology-meets-insurance business owes more to the first two Mas than to the third.
Zhong An has begun gauging appetite for a Hong Kong initial public offering worth up to $1.5 billion. It has yet to set a price range but estimates from its underwriters, first reported by IFR on Monday, suggest the overall business could be worth between $9.3 billion and $12.9 billion.
On UBS estimates, Zhong An could be worth 41.3 to 50.2 times earnings for 2019. That is a sizeable uplift even to Tencent, say, which trades at 27 times that year’s forecast earnings, according to Eikon.
Meanwhile, Credit Suisse analysts arrive at a valuation of up to $12.7 billion. This is derived partly by applying, generously, an internet-style earnings multiple to Zhong An’s underwriting profits, and adding in book value. The researchers then ascribe up to $5.4 billion more, based on future cash flows, to its technology business, which helps other financial institutions use the cloud and big data.
These values are pretty punchy. To be sure, Zhong An has a lot going for it. It is growing fast, has lower costs than traditional rivals, and can use data from its backers to price risk more accurately. Across Asia, rising incomes and patchy insurance coverage make for an attractive market.
But banking on rapid growth assumes Zhong An’s competitors cannot mount much of a fightback - and that Zhong An can keep hold of the roughly 200 partners that provide most of its premiums.
Zhong An hardly has a monopoly on innovation, either. Ping An itself, for example, has an app that calculates the cost of a car accident within seconds using artificial intelligence, and has invested in cutting edge facial-recognition. For a fraction of the price - 10 times expected earnings for 2019, Eikon shows– Ping An offers investors a far cheaper way to play the same theme.
Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.
Sign up for a free trial of our full service at https://www.breakingviews.com/trial and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at www.breakingviews.com. All opinions expressed are those of the authors.