TD Ameritrade turns into first US brokerage to associate with Tencent's WeChat in America

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TD Ameritrade is partnering with Tencent as the U.S. brokerage firm looks to tap the massive user base of the Chinese technology company’s WeChat messaging app.

The online brokerage announced Monday it’s opening a portal on WeChat for U.S. users, following a similar launch in August for Hong Kong users. The move doesn’t get TD Ameritrade into mainland China yet, but would allow U.S. users to use the portal to check market data and other features. It gives the company a first-mover advantage in being present on the most popular social messaging app in China, amid a steady push of foreign financial firms into the world’s second-largest economy.

“For greater Asia, China, there is obviously a large number of customers here who are interested in investing in U.S. markets,” JB Mackenzie, the managing director of TD Ameritrade Asia, said in an interview with CNBC Monday.

WeChat has more than 1 billion monthly active users, according to Tencent. Known in China as Weixin, the mobile app is also used by many overseas Chinese and foreigners. It has evolved from recorded voice messages to a means of paying for store purchases and utility bills. Users can also access third-party services such as SF Express — a delivery company similar to FedEx — through “mini programs” that live within the WeChat app.

TD Ameritrade’s portal will be a mini program. The company says users can access market data, investor education materials, account balance information and agent chat services. The bulk of WeChat’s users are in mainland China and TD Ameritrade would likely need to work to generate awareness of the mini program for U.S. users.

“WeChat has been expanding its offering globally, and we are very excited that TD Ameritrade is using WeChat to bring our unrivaled convenience and accessibility to its customers,” Juliet Zhu, general manager and head of WeChat Marketing at Tencent, said in a release.

TD Ameritrade’s push to work with a leading Chinese brand comes as Beijing has stepped up its efforts this year to make good on years-long promises to open up its financial markets to foreign players.

This past Friday, UBS received approval to become the first foreign bank to increase its stake in a Chinese securities joint venture to a majority 51 percent. The news followed an announcement a few days earlier that German insurer Allianz could establish a wholly-owned unit in mainland China. In early November, American Express received preparatory approval from the People’s Bank of China for a clearing and settlement license in mainland China, where the company has formed a joint venture with Chinese fintech (financial technology) company LianLian.

“(In the) past six months there’s an increasing appetite from the (multinational corporations) to double down and increase their presence in China. That of course was triggered by new regulation (for allowing majority stakes),” Cliff Sheng, financial services partner at consulting firm Oliver Wyman, said in a phone interview Monday.

Sheng noted the ability of foreign financial firms to succeed in China depends on how much they can commit to localizing their services. “This is the primary concern for the foreign players on top of getting the license,” he said.

In this case, TD Ameritrade is working with one of the leaders in China’s rapidly developing fintech sector. WeChat’s mobile pay function vies with Alibaba-affiliate Alipay as one of the primary means of payment in mainland China today, and parent company Tencent is behind the country’s first digital bank, WeBank.

“I think there are some amazing ideas ready to burst out of this scene,” Mackenzie said. “What you have are innovations from all parts of this world that are working to bring these ideas to customers, and that’s an exciting opportunity to us.”

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