Asia Banking Research

Indonesia has no shortage of digital banks, but it is also a huge market with a significant population that has limited access to formal financial services. It is also a key market for Southeast Asian platform companies. Grab has digital banking licenses for Singapore and Malaysia as well, but Indonesia is the market where it has the best opportunity to prove the skeptics wrong.

Across Asia Pacific, criminals are using cryptocurrency to fund increasingly nefarious schemes. While early crime involving digital assets tended to target crypto exchanges themselves, the most infamous being the 880,000 Bitcoin stolen from Japan’s Mt. Gox between 2011 and 2014 now worth $45 billion – today digital assets are linked to money laundering, large-scale scams and funding of illegal arms programs. Crypto proponents usually insist that proper regulation can do much to mitigate this problem. Though regulation can boost investor protection and establish rules of the road, we believe that decentralized virtual currencies’ inherent nature means that potential for abuse will remain high. Regulators in some major jurisdictions in the region have come to similar conclusions and are acting accordingly.

Singapore has become one of Asia’s most important green finance centers, which is well exemplified by its third sale of green bonds in late May. The S$6 billion order book for the city-state’s third sale of green bonds was 2.45 times the amount offered to institutional investors. In addition, the offering of S$2.5 billion in bonds reached the maximum of the S$2.1 billion to S$2.5 billion range provided by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). The Singapore government has said there there is a pipeline of up to S$35 billion in sovereign and public-sector green bonds that will be issued by 2030.

With three of Asia’s most successful digital banks, South Korea is now considering adding a fourth. Though the country was well banked before the arrival of the digital challengers, Kakao Bank, K Bank and Toss Bank have all found a way to build market share rapidly without burning an inordinate amount of cash. The former two are profitable, while the latter should reach that milestone soon. Consumer interest in digital banks in Korea is such that the market can very likely support a fourth online lender.

The Philippines is one of Asia’s most promising digital banking markets thanks to a favorable combination of underbanked consumers, island geography that limits the footprint of physical bank branches and incumbents with average digital capabilities. That said, it will take time for online banks to be profitable, and in March, the Philippine central bank (BSP) said that just two of the official digital lenders – which it did not identify – are profitable and it may take five to seven years before the others reach that milestone. Investors, however, appear to be willing to play the long game in this market segment.

South Korea’s digital banks have long been outliers, with market leader Kakao Bank one of the most successful online lenders in Asia. Though Kakao Bank’s share price has fallen about 65% since its November 2021 IPO, that reflects macroeconomic conditions and investors adjusting overly high expectations for the company more than any underlying issues with its business model or earnings. To that end, in the March quarter Kakao Bank posted a record profit of 111.2 billion won (US$81.44 million), up 9% year-on-year.

South Korea’s digital banks are the exception to a rule in East Asia’s advanced economies: They are extremely successful by multiple metrics instead of redundant. While the relative weak digital offerings of incumbent banks in Korea helps explain the phenomenon, it is not the main reason. We believe that South Korea’s three digital banks – Kakao Bank, K Bank and Toss Bank –  have been able to develop truly competitive products, in contrast to their counterparts in the other Asian tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, and gradually have made themselves indispensable to many Korean retail customers.

Digital banks have sprung up across Asia in recent years. In many cases, they are having little impact on the overall banking market. Affluent societies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan are not lacking banking options. Even middle-income countries like Malaysia and Thailand have limited financial inclusion needs.

The tumult in Indonesia’s P2P lending industry should not come as a surprise. It is exceedingly difficult to both regulate this industry fairly and allow it to maximize financial inclusion benefits. Strict regulation such as is practiced in Taiwan and South Korea (though Seoul may make some changes soon) minimizes malfeasance but also limits the usefulness of the platforms. Amid the current meltdown of P2P lending platforms, which is hitting retail investors hard, the sector faces an inflection point in Indonesia.

With Thailand finally getting its digital banking application process underway, it is worth taking a closer look at the prospective applicants. As expected, startups are nowhere to be found. Instead, the likely applicants – and winners – are a mix of Thailand’s ultra-wealthy tycoons, prominent incumbent banks and Asian tech giants.

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