If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That seems to be true in just about every market that has introduced digital banks, and it is a two-way street. Hype about the challengers unseating incumbents tends to give way to a more nuanced reality in which there is some room for cooperation. In Australia, where four large banks have long dominated the market, the incumbents are steadily increasing their cooperation with fintechs in a bid to strengthen their digital offerings.
Big Tech may have reached an apex in the United States and China, but in South Korea it is ascendant. In a country where chaebols have long been dominant, it is not hard to imagine internet companies – and indeed fintechs in particular – taking a similar path. And that is exactly what is happening. First, Kakao became a fintech giant, and now it is Viva Republica’s turn. The company, which operates Toss, the largest fintech app in South Korea, recently raised US$410 million at a valuation of US$7.4 billion.
Sea Group is one of the most successful loss-making companies in the world outside of private markets. Sea lost an astronomical amount of money in the first quarter of the year: US$422 million. That is not normally cause for celebration among listed companies, but its revenue also grew 147% year-on-year to US$1.76 billion. Investors are cheering: Sea’s stock price has risen more than 300% to US$283 over roughly the past year. Helping to drive that bullish investor sentiment are expectations about Sea’s potential in Southeast Asia’s nascent but fast-growing digital finance space.
If there ever was a “We are all fintechs now” moment, it must have been earlier this year when Indonesia’s online travel unicorn Traveloka stepped up its rebranding as a digital financial services provider. Skeptics could have been forgiven for rolling their eyes. Yes, the pandemic has hit the travel industry hard and companies like Traveloka need to rejig themselves or they may not survive. On the other hand, not every platform company is suited to reinvent itself as a fintech.
Many of the world’s preeminent platform companies have tried to reinvent themselves as fintechs. Outside of China, South Korea’s Kakao is the only one that is an undisputed success. Kakao boasts South Korea’s largest e-wallet, with 36 million users, and leading digital bank. Both will go public in Korea in August and are likely to raise US$1.4 billion and US$2.3 billion respectively. The speed of Kakao Bank’s swing to profitability (it took just two years) – paving the way for the IPO just four years after its founding – has been remarkable by industry standards.
Just about every major tech company now wants to be a fintech, super app or both. What makes AirAsia different is that its core service has nothing to do with the internet or banking. Indeed, AirAsia is an airline that happens to have a digital services arm. The Malaysia-based firm probably would have stayed that way had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating effect on airlines and the travel industry. AirAsia is now going all in on its super app gambit, applying for a digital banking license in Malaysia and acquiring Gojek’s Thailand business.
In both Singapore and Hong Kong, digital banks are nice to have. In Malaysia, whose digital banking application period ended on June 30, the need for digibanks is somewhat greater. But in the Philippines, where 71 million adults remain unbanked and 1/3 of municipalities lack a banking presence, the need for neobanks is more pressing. With that in mind, the Philippines’ central bank is approving digital banks’ applications on a rolling basis in the hope of reaching key financial inclusion targets by 2023. Tencent-backed Voyager Innovations and RCBC are the two most recent entrants to the country’s digital banking race.
June 30 was the deadline for Malaysia’s digital bank licenses and there were 29 applicants for a maximum of five licenses from a wide variety of would-be neobanks, among them platform companies, incumbent lenders, conglomerates, state governments, fintechs and more. The Malaysian central bank will name the winners of the licenses in early 2022.
The digital banking proposition in Singapore has always been a bit curious. A central tenet of the case for digital banks in the city-state is that, well, Hong Kong has them, and besides, digital lenders can boost financial inclusion – as long as the definition of financial inclusion is broad. 98% of Singaporeans aged 25 and above have a bank account according to Allianz Global Wealth , so when we talk about financial inclusion in Singapore, we are not talking about the same thing as in Indonesia (34% of adults have a bank account) or the Philippines (29% of adults are banked).
Australia’s Big Four banks have had their fair share of compliance travails in recent years. That much was made clear in the report produced by The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. Since the report was published in 2019, Westpac and Commonwealth Bank of Australia have borne the brunt of fines issued for money-laundering violations. However, National Australia Bank (NAB) is now the one in AUSTRAC’s crosshairs.
Earlier this year, it was unclear if peer-to-peer (P2P) lending had a future in South Korea. Legislation passed in August 2020 to curb malfeasance in the industry had made it harder to operate legally. This legislation banned P2P lenders from lending money they borrow from commercial banks and required they have paid-in capital of at least 500 million won (US$440 million) and register with the Financial Services Commission (FSC) within a year. The regulator’s decision to license several prominent P2P lenders signals that the industry has a way forward in South Korea.
In their first year of operation, Hong Kong’s virtual banks all lost money. Ant Bank lost the least at HK$172 million while Standard Chartered-backed Mox Bank lost the most at HK$456 million, according to the banks’ respective annual reports. While it is still early days for Hong Kong’s digital lenders, it appears a few of them are pulling ahead of the pack.
For digital banks, the Philippines is among the most promising markets in Southeast Asia because of its large overall size (population 110 million) and significant unbanked population. About 71% of adults in the Philippines people lack a bank account, but more than 2/3 of the population has a smartphone. Thus far, the BSP has issued three of the five digital bank licenses up for grabs. In April, Overseas Filipino Bank (OF Bank), a subsidiary of government-owned Land Bank of the Philippines, received one. In June, the BSP awarded two more digital banking licenses, one to Tonik and one to UNObank.
Indonesia’s peer-to-peer (P2P) lending sector is growing steadily after a pandemic-induced slowdown in 2020. Regulators, mindful of the sector’s ability to boost financial inclusion but wary of the risks that can build up when oversight is too light, have been gradually issuing licenses to legitimate companies while penalizing bad actors.