MercadoLibre is shaking up both retail and finance in Latin America

向阿里巴巴看齐 The wannabe Alibaba-书迷号

SINCE YOUR columnist first moved to a debt-ridden Latin America in the 1980s, he has seen many aspects of business in the region change for the better. Two have not. The first is the plethora of small businesses, from family-run corner shops and ice-cream parlours to hardware stores, that by and large are as scruffy as they were back then, eke out a meagre existence and remain stubbornly cash-only (even if cashiers still struggle to work out how much change you are due). The second is a visit to a bank, where, it sometimes seems, the only people who get what they need are those with a stocking over their head and an Uzi in their hands.


The two traits reinforce each other. Small businesses fail to modernise because they struggle to tap credit. Oligopolistic banks feel vindicated in not caring a hoot about firms stuck in the past. The resulting lack of dynamism among the small and medium-sized firms that account for more than 99% of enterprises in Latin America is a brake on economic activity. With covid-19 still wracking the region, the vulnerability has become worse. Total or partial lockdowns as well as fear of contagion and a deep recession have put many of the region’s smaller businesses in mortal danger.


Not all, though. To see why, look at MercadoLibre. The pan-Latin American e-commerce and fintech firm’s market value has doubled to $50bn during the pandemic as it has provided online sales and payments lifelines to such vulnerable companies. Since it was founded in 1999 by, among others, Marcos Galperin, an MBA graduate from Stanford University, it has become the region’s biggest tech darling, even though in 2020 revenues are projected to be just $3.2bn and it will lose money for a third year running. Profit, though, is for the future. Meanwhile, it is part of a wave of digital disruption that may propel smaller firms—which make up about 80% of those using its platforms—into the modern era.

不过也不尽然。为什么这么说?来看看美卡多(MercadoLibre)。疫情期间,这家泛拉美电子商务和金融科技公司的市值翻了一番,达到500亿美元,因为它向那些脆弱的企业提供了在线销售和支付服务这一救生索。自1999年由斯坦福大学的MBA毕业生马科斯·加尔佩林(Marcos Galperin)等人创立以来,这家公司已成为拉美最大的科技宠儿,尽管它在2020年的收入预计仅为32亿美元,而且将连续第三年亏损。但利润是未来的目标。与此同时,它还投身于一股数字颠覆的浪潮之中,这股浪潮可能会推动小企业——约占其平台的企业用户的80%——向现代迈进。

Typically, MercadoLibre, which means “free market” in Spanish, has been compared to eBay, the American online marketplace that was an early investor. It is now worth more than its erstwhile mentor. It shares some characteristics with Amazon, with which it competes, especially in Mexico. For instance, like Amazon in its early days, it is prepared to forsake short-term profit for rapid growth. It has also been developing a logistics network. But unlike the American titan, it rarely trades on its own behalf; its e-commerce business earns a fee from transactions between buyers and sellers on its platform. In that way it resembles Alibaba, owner of China’s online emporiums. Its fintech arm, Mercado Pago, is loosely modelled on Alipay, Alibaba’s payments system. Plans announced on July 20th by Alipay’s owner, Ant Group, to issue shares that could value it at $200bn have MercadoLibre’s investors salivating over the prospect of a Latin American equivalent.

MercadoLibre在西班牙语中意为“自由市场”,人们常拿它与它的早期投资者、美国在线市场eBay作比较。现在它的价值已超过了这位昔日的导师。它和竞争对手亚马逊(特别是在墨西哥)有些共同点。例如,和早年的亚马逊一样,它甘愿为快速增长放弃短期利润。它也一直在发展物流网络。但与这家美国巨头不同的是,它很少开展自营业务:它的电商业务会从平台上买卖双方的交易中赚取费用。在这方面,它与中国的网上商城所有者阿里巴巴类似。其金融技术部门Mercado Pago大致仿照了阿里巴巴的支付系统支付宝。7月20日,支付宝的母公司蚂蚁集团宣布了上市计划,可能会使其估值达到2000亿美元。这令美卡多的投资者无比憧憬“拉美蚂蚁”的前景。

What attracts those investors most is the promise of a digital revolution in Latin America. It has been slow to get going. Last year less than 5% of retail sales in the region took place online, compared with 12% in America and 20% in China. Half of all Latin Americans lack a bank account. Fear of credit-card fraud has held back e-commerce, as have logistical nightmares in Brazil, where MercadoLibre generates more than half its revenues. Yet in a mixture of luck and good timing, the firm had invested in logistics just as e-commerce penetration surged into double digits amid the pandemic. Pedro Arnt, its finance chief, says Latin America’s move online has been “fast-forwarded” by three to five years in the past few months. That is true everywhere. But if first-time online shoppers in Latin America make it a habit, MercadoLibre has plenty to gain. According to Barclays, a bank, the value of merchandise traded on MercadoLibre averaged $30 per Latin American last year. The equivalent figure for Amazon in its core markets of America, Europe and Japan was $405.

最吸引这些投资者的是拉美有望掀起一场数字革命。一直以来,这场革命迟迟未发动。去年,该地区在网上实现的零售额不到5%,而美国的数字是12%,中国是20%。一半的拉美人没有银行账户。对信用卡诈骗的担忧阻碍了电子商务的发展,巴西的物流恶梦也是个因素,而美卡多在巴西的收入超过公司总收入的一半。但它撞上了好运气和好时机——疫情期间电子商务渗透率飙升至两位数,而它已经投资了物流。公司财务总监佩德罗·阿恩特(Pedro Arnt)表示,过去几个月里,拉美的电商化“快进”了三到五年。这在所有地方都是如此。但如果拉美首次网购的用户养成了习惯,美卡多会获得丰厚的收益。根据巴克莱银行的数据,去年拉美人在美卡多交易的商品价值为人均30美元。亚马逊在其美欧日核心市场的数字是405美元。

The potential for payments may be even greater, though this business has had a bumpier ride in the pandemic. Beforehand, MercadoLibre was busily trying to bring offline merchants into its orbit by encouraging them to accept mobile payments via QR codes at bricks-and-mortar outlets. With the closure of restaurants and shops this initiative slowed. But QR adoption as a social-distancing measure may flourish as businesses reopen. Marvin Fong of BTIG, a broker, says a push by Latin American central banks to promote QR-style digital payments could galvanise fintech platforms in Latin America, such as Mercado Pago.

支付的潜力可能还要更大,尽管这项业务在疫情中遭遇的挫折也更大。在这之前,美卡多就在积极鼓励线下商户在实体商店内接受基于二维码的移动支付,从而将它们纳入自己的轨道。但随着餐馆和商店关闭,这方面的动作放慢了。但随着商家重新开放,二维码作为一种保持社交距离的措施可能会大行其道。券商BTIG的马文·方(音译)表示,拉美各国央行对二维码式数字支付的推动可能会提振Mercado Pago之类的拉美金融科技平台。

The Amazon delta


Mr Arnt admits it would be foolish to savour these “once-in-a-generation” opportunities and ignore the competitive threats. The biggest is Amazon, against which his firm has waged a costly battle in Mexico. So far Amazon has paid more attention to e-commerce opportunities in India than in Central and South America, but that could change. The second threat is that covid-19 convinces big physical retailers of the urgency to build online networks. He calls this the “empire strikes back” scenario. The third is in payments, whether in the form of competition from regional fintech startups or from WhatsApp (linked, perhaps, with the e-commerce ambitions of Facebook, its owner). MercadoLibre executives must have breathed a sigh of relief last year when they received a $750m investment from PayPal, a potential rival, to help them expand their company’s digital payments.


But MercadoLibre also has some built-in advantages. Its e-commerce success has given it enough brand recognition to support a region-wide payments business. Its small and medium-sized business customers rely on it for e-commerce, payments and, increasingly, credit; that helps entrench their loyalty. And its Latin American heritage means it understands not just the countries’ commonalities, but also their differences. Locals say it is a collegiate company that the brightest people in the region want to work for—more so than Amazon. If it inspires them to create their own businesses to sell via its platform, so much the better.■