In Asia, digital wallets are increasingly where the money is for ride-hailing companies. Once they have a critical mass of customers using their app for taxis, the companies launch a suite of financial services people can access from the convenience of their smartphones. Didi Chuxing is going this route in China, while Singapore-based Grab and Indonesia-based Go-Jek are launching digital wallets across Southeast Asia.
Across Asia, there is a race to go cashless as financial digitalization accelerates. Financial services companies want to capture business from digital payment adoption, while regulators want to reduce costs by printing less paper money and minting fewer coins. Consumers want convenient payment options.
Singapore's Grab is rolling out a suite of digital financial services in a bid to become Southeast Asia's preeminent app. The services including micro-lending, micro-insurance and payments. Like China's ubiquitous messaging app WeChat has done, Grab wants to build an ecosystem where consumers can bank, order food and shop - not just chat and hail rides. Asean's large underbanked population makes it an attractive market for fintechs.
Virtual currency adoption looks set to accelerate in Taiwan as the island plans to establish a mechanism for security token offerings by mid-year. The move is in line with Taiwan's launch of a fintech regulatory sandbox that allows firms to experiment with novel business models but not fall afoul of existing regulations.
Myanmar is an intriguing market for fintechs. It is one of the fastest growing of all Asian economies. Annual GDP growth has exceeded 6% in recent years. The government has embraced digitalization and to a certain degree, foreign investment, a remarkable turnaround for a country that had been closed to the world for decades.
South Korea’s Financial Services Commission (FSC) has announced it will set up an open interbank payment network this year in a bid to strengthen the country's nascent fintech industry. The FSC hopes that the move will help facilitate the rise of new digital finance powerhouses such as the payment apps Kakao Pay, Naver Pay and Toss.
2019 could be the year of the securitized token. In February, Thailand became the latest country to amend regulations to pave the way for tokenized stocks, bonds and mutual funds on the blockchain. The tokenized platform is likely to be implemented this year, according to Tipsuda Thavaramara, deputy secretary-general of Thailand's Securities Exchange Commission.
Hong Kong authorities will reportedly soon issue digital banking licenses to six different companies in a bid to shake up the former British crown colony's financial sector. The lucky six include Chinese internet banking heavyweights Ant Financial and Tenpay, Zhongan Insurance (in a tie-up with Citic), Hong Kong Telecom, smartphone maker Xiaomi, and England's Standard Chartered Bank.
The Philippines is gradually boosting financial inclusion as it digitalizes its banking sector. In early February, Manila-based financial inclusion firm Oradian announced it would partner with Cantilan Bank to provide digital banking services to the nation's most remote corners. In a press release, the companies said that Cantilan Bank is the Philippines' first regulated financial institution to leverage cloud-based technology.
Taiwan's regulatory sandbox has approved its first startup, Hong Kong-based financial settlement network EMQ. In Taiwan, EMQ will focus on remittance services for Indonesian, Vietnamese and Filipino migrant workers - a large and growing market. In 2018, migrant workers in Taiwan sent more than US$3 billion home, according to Taiwan's central bank.
Within Asean, Cambodia is a relative latecomer to fintech. Its neighbors Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore are all well ahead in terms of digital finance adoption. But with the Cambodian government now supporting fintech through the National Bank of Cambodia, the country could be poised for a transformation.
Despite its embrace of advanced technology, Japan is a country that likes cash, settling 80% of transactions with paper bills and metal coins. It is not uncommon to find restaurants and bars in the capital city of Tokyo - the world's largest metropolitan area - that do not accept any other form of payment. If the shop is small and family owned, don't expect to pay with a credit card.
The cryptocurrency winter is getting frostier, but a blockchain spring may be around the corner in South Korea. Seoul's prudent approach to distributed ledger technology - less draconian than Beijing's but stricter than Tokyo's - just may represent the happy middle ground. A year ago, Seoul moved to ban anonymous virtual currency trading in a bid to quash crypto related crime, but stopped short of shutting down exchanges as China has done. Meanwhile, although Japan has also banned anonymous trading, it allows crypto to self-regulate, for better or worse.
With its underdeveloped banking sector, Vietnam is a prime market for digital financial services. Thus far the pace of development has been modest, but analysts expect it will speed up considerably in the next few years. In a November report, ratings agency Moody's said that startups focused on payments were the most prevalent in the nascent Vietnam fintech segment. By some estimates, payments startups account for almost 50% of Vietnam's fintech firms. Vietnam also has about 25 fintech incubators, accelerators and innovation labs.