Asia Banking Research

2020 started well for Australia's neobanks. Deposit bases were growing quickly. Some Australian neobanks were on track to reach their deposit goals well ahead of their sales forecasts. That was before the coronavirus became a global pandemic. The virus has spread like wildfire globally in the past few months, sickening 2.5 million people and causing more than 170,000 fatalities. Australia has not become an epicenter of the outbreak, but it has still had to contend with thousands of cases and entered a strict lockdown on March 23. It is highly likely that the Australian economy will soon enter recession for the first time since 1991.

Under this scenario, neobanks may face a tough uphill climb. Grim economic conditions could affect Australians' willingness to switch their primary banking provider or even open a new account with a different provider.

Hong Kong issued eight digital banking licenses more than a year ago, but just one of the new virtual banks is fully operational, ZhongAn Insurance-backed ZA Bank. ZA Bank began operations this month after completing a mandatory trial in March. Three other Hong Kong digital banks recently began trials: Ant Financial's Ant Bank, Xiaomi and AMTD's Airstar Bank and Standard Chartered-backed Mox Bank. The other four Hong Kong digital banks have not announced when they will launch trials.

Initially, it seemed Hong Kong's virtual banks had arrived in the right place and at the right time. The city has plenty of banking options, but innovation among incumbents has been limited in recent years. Retail customers are eager for new digitally forward banking platforms. But last year's protests and the coronavirus outbreak have delivered a punishing blow to Hong Kong's economy. The city fell into recession well before the global economic malaise brought on by the coronavirus. Hong Kong's digital banks have struggled to gain momentum under these circumstances.

Singapore-based Arival Bank is one of the less high-profile applicants for a digital bank license in the city-state. It's easy to get lost in the crowd when you're competing against names like Ant Financial, Xiaomi and ByteDance. Arival Bank, a fintech startup, has applied for the same digital wholesale bank (DWB) license as those Chinese tech giants. In a nutshell, that license allows the holder to serve non-retail clients in Singapore. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has said it would issue three DWB licenses.

China's ByteDance, best known as the owner of the popular TikTok video-sharing app, is reportedly now the world's most valuable startup with a US$75 billion valuation or more. That's quite a price tag. Of course, since the valuation is occurring in private markets, it is difficult to assess its accuracy. WeWork was once worth US$47 billion too. Now the company is fighting for its survival.

To be sure, ByteDance is on firmer footing than Adam Neumann's troubled company. In the quarter ended Dec. 2019, TikTok's short-video app revenue increased 310% annually, according to research firm Apptopia. Overall, ByteDance recorded between US$7 billion and US$8.4 billion in revenue in the first half of 2019, data from Reuters show.

The Kakao Talk messenger app's financial arm became the majority shareholder of Baro Investment & Securities in February, taking a 60% stake in the brokerage. This is the type of cooperation between incumbents and fintechs that Korea's Financial Services Commission (FSC) likes to see. Kakao is focusing largely on the underserved retail segment, with an eye on financial inclusion. Kakao could likely become the definitive Korean super app if its fintech business grows large enough.

Kakao is nearly as dominant in Korea as WeChat was in China when it moved into fintech. The Kakao Talk app has about 50 million active users in a country of about 51.5 million. Kakao Pay, which is already one of Korea's largest fintech platforms, has about 30 million registered users. Kakao Bank, one of the first two neobanks launched in Korea, has about 11.3 million customers.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF ) told the Philippines in October to improve its anti-money laundering regime or else face the possibility of being placed on the organization's blacklist once again, an unenviable position. FATF gave Manila one year to get its house in order. The Philippines does not want to be on that blacklist: Banking sanctions could ensue that would make it harder for Filipino workers to remit money home, while foreign countries could increase due diligence checks on Philippine companies. Philippine banks might also charge higher interest rates as their own costs rise due to the tougher business environment.  

“We cannot afford to have the Philippines in the FATF’s list of high risk and non-cooperative jurisdictions. Hence, we should be very strategic in our focus for the next 12 months,” Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin Diokno said last October.

The competition for Singapore digital banking licenses is heating up as yet another fintech throws its hat into the ring. This time, the contender is homegrown fintech MatchMove which is applying for a digital full-bank (DFB) license together with Singapura Finance, the Thai blockchain startup LightNet and the London fintech startup OpenPayd. There are only two DFB licenses up for grabs. They allow licensees to conduct both retail and corporate banking. Digital wholesale bank (DWB) licenses are valid only for non-retail banking.

The United States is currently focused on fighting the coronavirus outbreak, which has surged in the country since early March. Containment efforts are occupying much of the government's time, and with good reason. The massive health and economic threat posed by the virus means that Washington has little time for less pressing matters. Yet underlying tensions between the U.S. and China remain, with the financial sector the next front of an emerging cold war.

In early March, U.S. lawmakers sought to curb the access of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to American banks. The White House had mulled doing so in December but decided against it amidst a flurry of activity to reach a phase-one trade deal with China. The NETWORKS Act introduced earlier this month would effectively ban 5G producers such as Huawei from accessing the U.S. financial system if they are found to be violating sanctions or engaging in industrial or economic espionage.

Gaming company Razer isn't the most obvious shoo-in for one of Singapore's digital banking licenses, but has unique advantages it brings to the table. Those include a user base 80 million strong primarily composed of millennials, one of the key target demographics of neobanks. Razer established a fintech unit in 2018 to respond to the need for in-game payment. If it gets the license, Razer wants to expand its digital banking services beyond East Asia to the Middle East, Europe and North America. 

Well before COVID-19 broke out, Hong Kong's future as a global financial center was in question. The protests that broke out last year have raised concerns about the city's ability to maintain its unique competitive strengths. Further erosion of political stability and the rule of law will augur ill prospects for the former British colony. In the short run, it is true that none of Hong Kong's neighbors can challenge its position as the region's preeminent financial center. But Hong Kong cannot assume that will never change.

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