China clamps down on micro-loan market; U.S.-listed shares plunge

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s financial regulators on Tuesday took steps to clamp down on the fast-growing market for web-based micro-lenders, a credit sector Beijing has grown increasing worried about, sending shares of U.S.-listed shares of Chinese financial firms into a tailspin.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., November 20, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

A top-level Chinese government body issued an urgent notice to provincial governments urging them to suspend regulatory approval for the setting up of new internet micro-lenders, sources who had seen the notice told Reuters.

The body, tasked by the central government in Beijing to rein in risks in the growing online finance sector, also told local regulators to restrict granting of new approvals for micro-loan companies to conduct lending across regions, according to the sources.

The information office of the State Council, or Cabinet, and the People’s Bank of China could not be immediately reached for comment.

Shares in online lender Qudian (QD.N) sank nearly 20 percent, before recovering some ground to trade down 9.5 percent to $18.18.

Qudian, which is backed by Alibaba Group (BABA.N) affiliate Ant Financial and became profitable last year, operates a website that allows college students and young white-collar workers to buy laptops, smartphones and other consumer electronics in monthly installments.

The company went public at $24 per share, raising about $900 million in an IPO that priced above expectations, underscoring robust U.S. investor demand for fast-growing Chinese companies.

On Tuesday, shares of China Commercial Credit Inc (CCCR.O) were down 8.4 percent and PPDAI Group (PPDF.N) was down 17.1 percent. Shares of Jianpu Technology (JT.N), which also debuted just this month, were down 18.8 percent. China Rapid Finance’s (XRF.N) shares dipped 0.9 percent.

Companies providing small loans, especially on the internet, have expanded rapidly in the past year, partly due to loose government rules.

Such firms meet demand for credit from individuals who have been shunned by Chinese banks, which typically prefer big corporate clients. But interest rates on these small loans provided by non-banks are very high, which is not often appreciated by individuals drawn to the easy terms and conditions.

Consumer lending through Chinese online platforms more than tripled last year to almost $140 billion, according to a recent report by the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.

Tuesday’s move comes on the heels of talk of a potential clamp down on consumer lending in China and just days after LexinFintech (LX.O) filed a $500 million IPO with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the latest in a series of offerings from the sector.

Reporting by Saqib Iqbal Ahmed in New York, Shu Zhang and Ryan Woo in Beijing, Aparajita Saxena in Bengaluru; editing by Alison Williams, G Crosse

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Tencent turns to WeChat, games and deals for global strategy

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China’s biggest social network and gaming firm Tencent Holdings, which last week reported forecast-beating quarterly results, is close to making Malaysia the first foreign country to roll out its WeChat ecosystem, an executive told Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: Tencent’s booth is pictured at the Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) 2017 in Beijing, China April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

Tencent has made a “breakthrough” in gaining an e-payment license in Malaysia for local transactions, and plans a launch early next year, senior vice president S.Y. Lau said in an interview.

The move pits Shenzhen-based Tencent, Asia’s most valuable listed company, against rival Alibaba Group as they scramble for new growth opportunities outside China.

“Malaysia is actually quite large in the sense that we have 20 million WeChat users, huge potential, and the market is quite warm towards internet products from China,” Lau said.

Southeast Asia, home to more than 600 million people and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has been a key battleground for China’s tech titans fighting for deals. Ethnic Chinese make up more than a fifth of Malaysia’s population.

WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, which dominate China’s digital payment market, have sought to expand their global footprint, although that push has so far been limited to payment services for Chinese outbound tourists. They can scan-and-pay for purchases in 34 countries or regions via Alipay and 13 via WeChat Pay, according to the companies.

Alipay’s parent company Ant Financial has joint ventures in seven markets for local digital payments services, which operate independently under the partnerships’ brand names.

Alibaba is looking to build a global payment system, while Tencent is more interested in generating traffic for WeChat – two different strategies, some bankers and investors say.

WeChat has more users, but Alipay’s aggregate transaction volume is higher, according to JP Morgan’s John Hall, though other investors note that WeChat Pay can also process large transactions if it’s used on e-commerce platforms.

GLOBAL EXPANSION

One challenge for Tencent, say analysts, is that its success in China cannot be easily exported to other markets.

Tencent is “not in a hurry” to speed up its overseas expansion or increase the monetization rate of its digital assets, Lau said.

“We walk our own path at our own pace … and, to be honest, there is really quite a lot to do in China,” he said.

WeChat, which has ballooned from a messaging app to an all-in-one platform with 980 million monthly active users, could be the “killer product” to spearhead expansion abroad, Lau said, as its embedded payment function draws more services.

WeChat, with an open platform of mini-programmes, was a key revenue contributor for Tencent in the third quarter. Social and other advertising revenue rose 63 percent, while payment and cloud helped “other business” post a 143 percent jump

FILE PHOTO: The Snapchat messaging application is seen on a phone screen August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo

“Honour of Kings”, Tencent’s top-grossing battle game that led an 84 percent increase in quarterly smartphone gaming revenue, also owes its success to the network help of WeChat, and is expected to find it tougher to crack Western markets, analysts say.

Tencent this month delayed the launch of the game’s U.S. edition, “Arena of Valor”, to next year to “further polish additional gameplay and social features”.

After games and social media, most of Tencent’s other businesses are in digital content, including Spotify equivalent Tencent Music and YouTube equivalent Tencent Video, which also makes its own dramas.

CULTURE CHALLENGE

Lau said the ultimate aim was to export culture from China to the rest of the world, rather than the other way round, which he acknowledged was challenging.

“What we’re aiming to create is ‘super IPs’ (intellectual property) that leverage our different businesses from upstream to downstream,” Lau said, citing Disneyland and the James Bond movies as successful practices in the West.

A big business for Tencent’s recently-listed publishing arm, China Literature, is to sell its popular novels and have them turned into dramas and video games by Tencent’s other business lines.

Tencent this month announced a plan involving 10 billion yuan ($1.51 billion) of investment to boost its creative content ecosystem, though it gave no timeframe for the investment.

Company president Martin Lau – no relation to S.Y. – said on an earnings call last week that Tencent would keep investing in digital content, especially online video, to draw more time from more paying customers.

Overseas acquisitions will remain a key way of enhancing Tencent’s global access and competitiveness, S.Y. Lau said.

Independent technology analyst Richard Windsor said Tencent’s 2016 acquisition of Supercell gave it a strong position in gaming,, while the move to buy a stake in social media firm Snapchat is another piece in the jigsaw.

“It increasingly looks as if Tencent is embarking on a circumnavigation of the digital life pie in order to build an ecosystem to challenge the Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook dominance of consumer digital services,” he said, noting it’s at a “super early stage” in that process.

Tencent will likely seek more overseas acquisitions, Windsor added, which, beyond being expensive, could challenge Tencent in integrating all its digital assets at home and abroad.

Tencent has struggled to monetize its dominance over the Chinese digital life, he said, adding that’s why he sees more upside in Tencent’s market valuation, and prefers it to Alibaba.

($1 = 6.6267 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Sijia Jiang, with additional reporting by Kane Wu; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Thanksgiving Hack: Cook Your Turkey Sous Vide

Maybe you like your Thanksgiving turkey dry and bland. I get it. There’s something deeply traditional about leaving the bird in the oven for hours and hours. Maybe you like the symbolism of the turkey taking up oven space, or maybe overcooked poultry gives you an excuse to overload it with gravy. Maybe you’ve given up on bird altogether (one year, my mom served lobster for Thanksgiving. “No one likes the turkey anyway!”). If you have beloved turkey-cooking traditions, that’s totally cool. But consider this: You can have a platter of turkey that’s juicy, flavorful, and delicious. You just have to cook it sous vide.

It seems counterintuitive, I know. Sous vide—a cooking method that involves sealing food inside a plastic bag and then cooking it in a water bath—seems ill suited for something as cumbersome as a Thanksgiving turkey. It seems too fancy and too French for a holiday that celebrates America. And for those who aren’t used to wielding a sous vide wand in the kitchen, the technique can seem intimidating, even overly precious.

Let me assure you: There is nothing easier or more foolproof than sealing your turkey into a plastic baggie, dropping it into a pot of water, and walking away. Really. That’s it. And when you return, you’ll have the best damn turkey you’ve ever tasted.

High-Tech Turkey

Sous vide is a fancy French way of saying “cooked in a vacuum.” You take some food, put it in a vacuum-sealed baggie (or, for the less pretentious chef, Ziploc works too), and leave it to slow cook in a bath of warm water until it’s tantalizingly tender. Unlike cooking by oven or grill, the bath method distributes heat evenly from edge to center, and the vacuum bag seals in moisture. You can cook everything from poultry to lobster to eggs to corn on the cob sous vide. But the method is especially well suited for turkey.

ChefSteps

“Turkey breasts are actually really tough muscle, so they’re a perfect candidate for sous vide,” says Grant Crilly, the head chef and co-founder of food and technology company ChefSteps. “Even as a chef, I used to hate turkey breasts. They’re just tough and a pain to cook. Ever since I’ve been cooking them sous vide, I’ve turned into a turkey breast man.”

Learning to cook sous vide is easy. You can find all sorts of sous vide immersion wands that connect with an app on your phone and simplify the method to pressing a button on your screen. (ChefSteps makes one such wand called Joule.) These sous vide wands, which contain a thermometer and a heating element, clamp onto the side of any pot filled with water and heat it to a precise temperature for a precise amount of time. All you have to do is bag the food, fill the pot with water, place the wand inside, and select the correct recipe in the app on your phone.

ChefSteps offers step-by-step instructions on how to prepare your turkey sous vide. Anova and Sansaire, which each make sous vide wands, also have dedicated guides. Whichever sous vide circulator you use, the basic concept remains the same: Quarter the turkey (if you’re doing this yourself, make sure to remove the ribs from the breast; otherwise, the sharp bones could poke a hole and rip the bag open). Place the legs in a large vacuum-sealed baggie, and cook those first. Then add the breasts in a separate baggie. Time and temperature will vary depending on your individual preferences, but Crilly recommends setting the temperature nice and low and cooking the bird overnight.

The sous vide method gives you a juicier turkey, because none of the moisture evaporates. You also get a more flavorful turkey, since you can marinate the meat for hours inside of the bag. (One pro tip from Chef Crilly: “Take a little pot of butter on the stove—this is before you cook the turkey—throw in thyme, garlic; fresh, beautiful herbs; peppercorns. Roast that and make this epic brown butter to dump in the bag with the bird while it cooks.”) Sous vide cooking gives you more control over the texture of each piece of meat: breasts and legs can cook at different temperature for different amounts of time, which ensures that everything comes out beautifully tender. Best of all, cooking your turkey in a countertop water bath frees up oven space for all the other Thanksgiving accoutrements: potatoes, casseroles, and pies. You can start the sous vide turkey the night before and focus on all the side dishes on Thanksgiving day.

One drawback: Poultry cooked sous vide often comes out looking pale and kind of gross. That’s no way to start your Thanksgiving feast. So, to get that nice, golden brown look, you can crisp up the outside in a number of ways: broil it, fry it, torch it, sear it in a pan, sprinkle on a little rub and pop it in the oven. You can crisp up the outside in whichever method you like without sacrificing that moist, tender meat inside.

I can understand that this method requires sacrifices by way of presentation. For some families, the very essence of Thanksgiving is bringing the whole turkey to the table and carving it right there. So if quartering the bird and cooking the hind legs separately from the breasts seems like some sort of savagery, I get it. But! You can also sous vide a whole turkey, provided you have a humongous pot to create a big enough water bath. (Chef Bruno Goussault has great step-by-step instructions here.) You can’t achieve quite the same cooking precision with this method, and it requires some oven time to brown the outside, but it does allow you to preserve the whole turkey without serving something dry, boring, and bland.

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