Two years ago, Hong Kong made fintech history in Asia as the region's first major economy to greenlight digital banks. As of the end of 2020, all eight of the banks were finally live. Political and covid-related disruptions had delayed their launch. Judging by the digibanks' marketing literature, they are poised to redefine banking in Hong Kong as we know it. The reality is more nuanced.
Barely a month after Xinja's abrupt demise, another Australian neobank is exiting the market. This time though, the said bank is being bought out, not folding like an accordion. It would seem that National Australia Bank (NAB) made 86 400 an offer the neobank could not refuse to the tune of AU$220 million. Shareholders cannot complain. Australia's third-largest lender had already purchased an 18.3% stake during 86 400's Series B fundraising round and says it is paying a premium to the price investors had paid when they invested in the neobank.
Taiwan finally has an operational digital bank. Rakuten International Commercial Bank (RICB), backed by the Japanese e-commerce giant, recently became the first of three digibanks approved by Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) to go live. RICB will initially offer deposits, fund transfer, small loan and debit card services and later expand into mortgages and corporate loans. Rakuten has had an internet bank in Japan (Rakuten Bank) for more than a decade.
Digital banking is a perilous pursuit. Just look at Xinja's sudden collapse or Monzo teetering on the brink. But that has not stopped cash-flush platform companies from trying to ride the digibanking wave to a blockbuster exit. So far, the results are mixed. One of the success stories is Korea's Kakao Bank, which borrowed a page out of WeChat's book and turned a ubiquitous messaging app into a money-making digibank. Kakao Bank is everything most digital banks are not: focused, profitable, and probably sustainable.
Platform companies counting on digibanking to lift their fortunes now routinely refer to themselves as "super apps" in the vein of China's WeChat. The two most prominent of them are Grab and Gojek, Southeast Asia's two most valuable startups. But being super and profitable are not one and the same. Under pressure from investors to reduce their cash burn and produce a viable exit strategy, both companies have sought a game-changing merger that could help them establish market dominance in digital banking. The M&A activity is accelerating pace as Grab and Gojek lose ground to Sea Group in Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy.
Rumors of an impending Grab-Gojek merger are looking more like smoke and mirrors by the day. After all, combine two similar questionable business models and and what do you get? Here is what you do not get: a company capable of slowing Sea Group's momentum in Indonesia. With gaming and e-commerce in the same ecosystem, Sea has stickiness that Gojek and Grab lack. With that in mind, perhaps Gojek could merge with a company able to complement its core services of ride hailing, food delivery and payments. One possibility is Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia.
Grab is going all in on digital banking. In the period of less than a month, Southeast Asia's most valuable unicorn has won a Singapore digital bank license and raised US$300 million in a funding round led by South Korea's Hanhwa Asset Management. That was the first external funding for its fintech arm. Other participating investors included long-time Grab backers GGV Capital and K3 Ventures as well as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's Flourish Ventures.
Malaysia's digital banking race will be the one to watch now that Singapore's has finally ended. On January 1, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) formally invited applications for digital banking licenses. The deadline for submission will be June 30 and BNM will announce up to five winners by the first quarter of 2022. Compared to Singapore's, this should be more of a wide open race. Fewer tech giants will be in the running, although Grab will likely throw its hat into the ring.
The Philippines must act swiftly to implement tougher anti-money laundering (AML) legislation or it will likely be placed on the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) gray list alongside failed states such as Syria, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Countries on the gray list, which is updated annually in February, are identified as having strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering /counterterrorism financing (CFT) regime that pose a risk to the global financial system. Enhanced compliance procedures required for transactions with financial institutions located in gray-list countries could make it harder for the Philippines' many migrant workers to remit money home and reduce the country's attractiveness to investors.
December was an eventful month for Australia's neobanks. Xinja's demise made waves, showing that it does not pay to keep building atop a flimsy foundation. Castles in the air must come down. And yet, some Aussie neobanks are thriving. Shortly after Xinja said it would turn in its banking license, Australian Financial Review reported that Judo Bank was set to raise up to AU$200 million from investors, bringing its valuation to AU$1.65 billion.
The Grab-Gojek rivalry is fast becoming the stuff of legend. Barring a merger, those two Southeast Asian decacorns are determined to one-up each other for evermore. The rivalry began with ride hailing and food delivery and has intensified in the fintech sector, the best hope for both firms to reach profitability and provide their deep-pocketed investors with an attractive exit. Following Grab leading a US$100 million funding round in Indonesian e-wallet LinkAja, Gojek spent US$160 million to increase its stake in PT Bank Jago to 22% from 4%. It is Gojek's largest investment yet in financial services.
Taiwan has had no shortage of opportunities to become a regional financial center. Most recently, Hong Kong's business environment declined markedly, prompting calls in Taipei to attract financial business from the former British colony. That will not happen though. Taiwan's regulatory environment is too restrictive. The business that leaves Hong Kong will instead go to Singapore and Tokyo.
In the twilight of 2020, warnings about shaky neobank business models often fall on deaf ears. For most neobanks and their investors, the prevailing business model remains growth first, ask questions later. Perhaps the abrupt collapse of Xinja, an erstwhile high-flying Australian neobank, will give others in the sector pause about their approach. Like most of its peers, Xinja telegraphed extreme confidence about its prospects. Right up until the end, Xinja was cool as a cucumber, assuring the public that a huge investment from Dubai-based investors was on the way. As it turns out, the cash is missing in action. And it is quite a sum.
Political uncertainty has dulled Hong Kong's edge as a global financial center. That much was clear long before Ant Group's IPO came to a screeching halt. The abortive Ant deal signaled that politics could shake Hong Kong's capital markets too. Still, Hong Kong's IPO market remains red hot - just not for fintechs anymore. As Hong Kong draws closer to China, it will assume the role of the country's offshore financial center. That will provide both Singapore and Japan with the chance to win some new business, which will be for the best. Asia is large enough to have multiple financial centers, each with a different role.