Armed escorts feature in a number of martial arts movies. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, Michelle Yeoh plays the swordswoman boss of a private security agency (or biaoju).
Her profession thrived for long periods during the Middle Kingdom, when silver taels were the major currency and moving large amounts between merchants required armed protection.
Investors will soon have the chance to buy into a biaoju in present-day China. Step forward Zhejiang Anbang Save-Guard (not to be confused with the Anbang Insurance Group), which plans to list on the Shanghai Stock Exchange this year. If successful, it will be the first armed security group in the country to achieve an initial public offering.
Barriers to entry in the cash security business are relatively high as operations are under the strict supervision of the Ministry of Public Security. According to WallStreet.cn, the ministry stopped giving out new licences to operators in 2017. All the companies in the sector also have to be majority-owned by the state, the news portal reported.
As a result Anbang Guard and its peers operate as quasi-monopolies in their home provinces and cities. In Anbang Guard’s case, it is 55.8%-owned by the Zhejiang branch of the state asset manager Sasac. Almost all of its revenue is derived in Zhejiang province, where it controls 70% of the market for escorting cash and other valuables.
The company’s client base is also quite concentrated around state banking heavyweights such as the Agricultural Bank of China and ICBC. Services in helping to move cash between the Zhejiang branches of these lenders accounted for two-thirds of the company’s Rmb220 million in revenues last year.
Anbang Guard’s dominance in Zhejiang makes it look like a strong candidate for a stock market listing. But the flip side is that its growth prospects are limited by the limitations to its licences, which don’t allow it to operate outside the province.
Potential investors will probably be wondering about the spread of mobile payments channels and the rise of the digital yuan too. One in five consumers in China have now downloaded the app for the e-CNY (the central bank’s digital currency). The digital yuan seems to pose an existential threat to Anbang Guard’s core business. As the Chinese accelerate towards a cashless society, is there going to be the same demand for protective services for transportations of cash?
This isn’t just a question for Chinese firms. G4S, a British company, sold its conventional cash guarding business to the American firm Brinks in 2020. The move, the G4S boss explained to Reuters at the time, was aimed at “simplifying the group and enabling G4S to focus on the development of its rapidly growing cash and payment technology business”.
Predictably, companies like Anbang Guard are already feeling the impact of digital payment tools like Alipay and WeChat Pay, which are rendering cash obsolete in many transactions in daily life. Two major banks in Beijing (Beijing Zhongguancun Bank and Liaoning Zhenxing Bank) both announced the suspension of their cash collection and payment services at the start of this year too – an omen, perhaps, for what is to come for Anbang Guard.
In response it has been looking for new areas of business. According to its listing document, these include providing security at large events and sales of “security innovations” such as armoured vehicles. But much like the impending extinction of ATMs in China (see WiC508 for more on the outlook for cash machines), Anbang Guard is surely going to struggle as cash becomes a thing of the past for consumers. Hence it is already trying to pivot away from some of its focus on cash transportation services to the development of more technical skills, including the creation of a “smart campus” in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Public Safety. Part of the plan includes new offerings in facial recognition and vehicle identification, as well as a system that monitors student safety. The question is whether that will be enough to convince investors to buy their shares.
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