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ECONOMY | 08-12-2021 08:51

Argentine fintech start-up Ualá starts its own brokerage service

Company to allow dollar purchases at parallel exchange rate; Start-up is ramping up investment after last funding round.

Argentine financial services startup Ualá is starting its own broker-dealer to boost the investment options it offers clients through its wallet app. 

It will be known as Ualintec Capital and kicked off operations Tuesday by allowing some users in the South American country to purchase dollars through a parallel rate known locally as “Dolar MEP,” said Pierpaolo Barbieri, the company’s founder and chief executive officer. It plans to eventually allow users to purchase depository receipts of US stocks, known as Cedears, and to offer its own funds in early 2022. 

Ualá, which was valued at US$2.5 billion in its latest funding round, is among a slew of fintech companies going up against brick-and-mortar banks as the region’s middle class seeks more sophisticated financial services. In Argentina, where annual inflation tops 50 percent, an option for Ualá users to invest cash stored in their electronic wallets into a money-market mutual fund quickly gained popularity, with adoption from 1.3 million users of the 3.5 million it has in the country.

Clients will continue to be able to invest in the money-market fund, which since November 2019 had been offered through a partnership with local broker SBS Asset Management SA. Now, Barbieri wants to give its users the option to invest in his own products. 

“We want to complement that with offerings that may offer a better return or a different risk profile,” he said in a phone interview. With Ualá hosting more than 30 percent of all investment accounts in Argentina, “why would we give that business to another brokerage?”

The purchase of greenbacks through a series of bond operations known as “Dolar MEP” has gained popularity in Argentina amid strict capital controls that only allow savers to purchase US$200 a month through official channels as the government seeks to preserve foreign reserves. These purchases are also taxed heavily. The MEP exchange rate is about 200 pesos per dollar, double that of the official rate which trades around 100.

Ualintec has a dedicated team of about 20 people, led by Andres Rodríguez Ledermann, Uala’s head of wealth management. Users aged over 18 will be able to access the investment options through the regular Ualá app. 

As part of its growth plan, the company announced the purchases of a bank in Argentina and of another in Mexico earlier this year, moves that would allow it to have a banking license in each country once the deals are finalised by local regulators. Barbieri declined to comment on progress in obtaining those approvals. 

The company also announced last week that it was expanding its loyalty programme in Argentina to all clients in the country and adding more services, including an alliance to allow users to collect frequent-flier miles with American Airlines. 

Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp and Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd led the company’s most recent US$350-million Series D funding round. The company is also backed by investors including George Soros, Steve Cohen and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

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by Jorgelina do Rosario & Carolina Millan, Bloomberg

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