The Philippines is determined to speed up financial inclusion through digitization. By 2023, the BSP aims to digitize at least 50 percent of total retail transactions and bring 70% of Filipino adults into the formal financial system. To that end, it introduced guidelines for digital banks in December 2020 and has thus far received two applications. The rules require licensees to hold at least 1 billion pesos in capitalization, operate a head office in the Philippines and offer only-only banking services. Licensees are not permitted to set up physical branches. The review process will likely carry on through 2021, with the winners being announced on a rolling basis. Yet some fintechs are determined to enter the market earlier.
Singapore’s digital banking race had far more losers than winners. Of all the failed bids, Razer’s must have been among the hardest to swallow. The gaming hardware firm was a strong contender and had Sea and Grab not both been in the running, may well have prevailed. The question now is, can Razer still become a digital bank? The answer is maybe in Malaysia and/or the Philippines.
Thailand is one of the few major Southeast Asian economies that has not unveiled a digital banking roadmap. Singapore's digital banks will go live in 2022. Malaysia will accept applications for licenses this year and issue them by early next year. The Philippines recently announced it would issue digital bank licenses. Indonesia plans to clarify digital bank regulations by mid-2021. In contrast, Thailand's central bank has been quiet about the possibility of digital banks for more than a year.
Australia's digital banking honeymoon is winding down. With Xinja and 86 400 both out of the picture - albeit in very different ways - the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) is moving to raise the sector's barrier to entry. It will become harder to get a banking license. Under the revised regulations, neobanks will have to be better capitalized and launch both an income-generating asset product and a deposit product in order to be approved for a full license.
Hong Kong's virtual banking field is crowded with eight neobanks that have similar value propositions. In their fledging stage, the digibanks have focused on quickly bringing customers onboard, highlighting their digital agility and offering high deposit interest rates for a limited time. The unicorn WeLab, the only native Hong Kong virtual bank, is one of the first to signal it has a broader strategy. WeLab in early March received an undisclosed investment from Allianz Group's digital investment unit as part of its Series C-1 fundraising and plans to collaborate with Allianz's asset management arm to develop wealth management products.
Japan's Line has super app potential. Its messaging app is popular in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. It has content, e-commerce and a growing portfolio of fintech services, with Line Bank set to launch in Taiwan by the middle of the year. And a recent merger with SoftBank affiliate Z Holdings brings an additional US$4.7 billion in capital to the table. The new entity, which integrates Line with Yahoo in Japan, projects that it will post revenue of 2 trillion yen and operating profit of 225 billion yen by fiscal year 2023. It is the brainchild of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, who aims to build a Japanese tech juggernaut able to compete with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple in Japan.
Fintech is the magic glue that holds startup ecosystems together in Asia. One after another, the region's biggest platform companies have pivoted to fintech, and then declared themselves super apps, usually in that order. Indonesia's Traveloka is expanding its fintech offerings from Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam as it eyes going public in the U.S. this year through a blank-check company.
When South Korea introduced a peer-to-peer (P2P) lending law last year, it seemed regulators had paved the way for the industry to grow stably. Seoul recognized that P2P lending could promote financial inclusion. The industry just needed proper supervision to minimize fraud and loan delinquency. However, the loan delinquency rate is rising, Korea's fintech giants are cutting their ties with P2P lenders and many of the firms are struggling to meet the law's requirements.
Sea Group's latest earnings report is packed with good news. Its gaming and e-commerce businesses grew expeditiously in 2020 as people stayed home, shopped online and played online games. EBITDA surged to US$107 million, compared to a loss of US$178.6 million in 2019. Gross profit doubled to US$1.3 billion from US$604 million a year earlier. Net income, however, remained negative. In fact, net losses widened to US$1.62 billion from US$1.46 billion. The question for Sea and investors is, does it matter?
South Africa’s TymeBank has big plans for Southeast Asia. The South African neobank plans to launch a digital bank in the Philippines and may also apply for a digital bank license in Malaysia. Measured by account numbers, Tyme is one of Africa’s most successful digibanks, claiming to have signed up almost 3 million customers since its launch two years ago. In late February, Tyme announced it had raised US$109 million from investors for expansion in Southeast Asia, one of the largest deals ever by a fintech in South Africa.
Hong Kong's status as a global financial center and lack of capital controls have long exposed it to certain financial crime risks. In 2020, the former British colony faced an unusual convergence of a recession, political tension and a once-in-a-century pandemic that upended society. Under that tough scenario, Hongkongers were scammed out of a record HK$8.33 billion, of which authorities managed to recuperate about HK$3 billion.
Gojek and Tokopedia are Indonesia's two most valuable startups and preeminent tech firms. Merging the two unicorns, with their mostly complementary services, makes a lot more sense that combining Gojek with its arch-rival Grab. While Grab-Gojek talks dragged on for months, Gojek and Tokopedia will not waste any time. They do not want to fall farther behind high-flying Sea Group, which is outperforming the Indonesian companies on their home turf.
Once upon a time, super apps began as e-commerce platforms or free messaging services. They tapped the network effect to build giant user bases. Because their overhead was low, they could afford to be patient about monetization. Transportation companies do not have the same luxury, especially airlines reeling from the pandemic's effect on air travel. Yet Malaysia-based AirAsia is doubling down on its super app strategy first announced last year. In March, AirAsia will expand its food delivery service airasia food from Malaysia to Singapore.
Since the advent of the internet, technology startups have disrupted one industry after another. It was only a matter of time before they set their sights on financial services.
As it turns out, banking is harder to disrupt than retail, transportation, entertainment or almost anything else. The reason is simple: Trust is paramount in banking and takes time to build, while most digital banks have yet to develop compelling value propositions.
A few of Asia's platform companies have defied this conventional wisdom. The most notable is WeChat, the Tencent-owned app that bundles messaging, digibanking, e-commerce and entertainment under the same umbrella. WeChat was not the first platform company to thrive as a fintech - Alipay was - but it was the first to harness messaging's network effect for that purpose.