Now that Singapore's digital banking race is over, the losers must shift gears. And there were far more failed than successful bids. Of the 14 applicants which made it to the final round, only four were awarded licenses. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) may issue a fifth license in the future, but none of the remaining 10 applicants will sit around waiting for that day. Instead, they will look for opportunities outside of Singapore.
The Monetary of Authority of Singapore (MAS) set the bar high for aspiring digital banks to ensure that the licensees would be well capitalized and have a clear path to profitability. The stringent requirements ensured that defiant upstarts like the UK's Revolut opted out of the competition. In the end, the MAS awarded four licenses, two digital full bank (DFB) and two digital wholesale bank (DWB). There were few surprises. The winners were primarily big platform companies long considered leading candidates. The one exception was the consortium made up of Greenland Financial Holdings, Linklogis Hong Kong and Beijing Co-operative Equity Investment Fund Management, which was awarded a DWB license.
Three Chinese tech giants are competing for digital wholesale bank licenses (DWB) in Singapore: Ant Group, Xiaomi and ByteDance. Ant Group applied for the license alone, while Xiaomi (with AMTD) and ByteDance lead respective consortia. Prior to its abortive IPO, Ant had been widely considered one of the top candidates for a DWB. Ant's online banking experience far outstrips that of Xiaomi or ByteDance. However, China's crackdown on microlending could a deal a blow to Ant's prospects.
Australian neobank Judo is weathering the pandemic-induced downturn better than many of its counterparts. The Melbourne-based neobank reached unicorn status in May as it raised an additional A$230 million and says it was profitable as of August. Judo expects to raise an additional A$200 million to A$300 million before the end of the year.
Kakao Bank is having an exceptional year, setting the stage for a blockbuster IPO in 2021. Kakao's third-quarter profit rose more than 700% year-on-year to 40.6 billion won (US$35.9 million). Through September, Kakao had recorded 85.9 billion won in profits, up more than 458% annually. The Seoul-based neobank attributed its outstanding third-quarter performance to additional interest income and its non-interest business swinging to profitability for the first time.
Sea Group is closing in on one of two Singapore digital full bank licenses (DFB). Although Sea's losses doubled in the third quarter to US$425.3 million, the company's revenue surged 99% to reach $1.21 billion. Instrumental to that brisk revenue growth is Shopee, which is fast becoming one of Southeast Asia's premier e-commerce platforms. The integration of e-commerce, digital finance (SeaMoney) and gaming (Garena) into a digital services ecosystem with broad reach should be a winning combination for Sea.
After banks in Singapore were ensnared in the 1MDB scandal, Singaporean authorities stepped up their fight against financial crime. Having strict anti-fraud and anti-money laundering controls in place to fraud is essential for Singapore to strengthen its status as a global financial center for wealth management and major fintech hub. Yet some financial crime in the digital realm is posing new challenges to Singapore. The city-state's involvement in the Wirecard scandal is a case in point.
For digital banks, the pandemic is a double-edged sword. It is increasing demand for digital banking but revealing the fragility of the typical neobank business model. Many of the neobanks that couldn't make money in better times are now in varying degrees of financial trouble. Australia's Xinja finds itself in such a predicament. It needs to borrow a page out of the book of Revolut or N26 and secure another massive capital injection. That is proving to be easier said than done though. An investment of A$433 million led by Dubai-based World Investments Group (WIG) announced in March has yet to be confirmed.
All too often, the digital banking conversation focuses on retail customers. It makes for a good story, tech-savvy millennials doing all their banking from the convenience of a smartphone. And the promise of achieving massive scale is alluring. But in Singapore, the retail banking market will be a tough nut to crack. 98% of Singaporeans already have a bank account, while DBS, UOB and OCBC are well prepared for digital challengers. The less glamorous but more promising market opportunity for digital banks lies with small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Grab-Singtel consortium is in many ways the ideal candidate for a Singapore digital full bank license (DFB), which allows the holder to serve both retail and corporate clients. Both firms are based in the city-state but have a strong regional presence. Grab is Singapore's most prominent unicorn, Singtel its foremost telecoms firm, backed by Temasek. Joining forces, they could draw on large troves of user data to tailor digital banking services for a target demographic of millennials and SMEs. In Singapore, Singtel has 4.3 million subscribers.
South Korea's K bank has struggled since its inception in 2017. It lacks the super-sticky ecosystem and vast resources of its competitor Kakao Bank, which was set up at roughly the same time. In April 2019, K bank suspended most of its services amid fundraising difficulties. Although it resumed some services in July, K bank is still far from full strength. It has about 900 billion won in capital, compared to Kakao Bank's 1.8 trillion won. K bank will need to secure large capital injections in order to compete on an even footing with Kakao and Viva Republica's Toss Bank.
Revolut is one of Europe's biggest neobanks, but its ambitions are global. Pre-pandemic, Revolut planned to expand to a dizzying array of countries and territories. In September 2019, Revolut announced that within Asia-Pacific it would focus first on Singapore, Australia and Japan. Given its partnership with Visa, the UK neobank said it could later expand to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Cambodia has a costly money-laundering problem, both in fiscal and reputational terms. Effective October 1, the EU's revised list of third countries at high risk of money laundering came into effect. Cambodia was one of three newly listed East Asian countries along with Myanmar and Mongolia. Cambodia is also on FATF's money-laundering gray list. Being seen as a high money-laundering risk nation could complicate Cambodia's efforts to woo foreign investment amid the prolonged pandemic-induced downturn. The Cambodian economy is set to contract 4 to 5% this year.
The Malaysia digital banking race is taking shape as a growing number of non-financial firms signal their intention to apply for a digital bank license. Bank Negara Malaysia is expected to issue up to five licenses valid for conducting conventional or Islamic banking in the country. Per the Malaysian central bank's requirements, the new digital banks should focus on boosting financial inclusion primarily through digital means. Potential applicants include telecoms firms Axiata Group (which owns the e-wallet Boost) and Green Packet, ride-hailing giant Grab, gaming company Razer and conglomerate Sunway as well aas the Hong Kong-based financial group AMTD and the Malaysian bank AMMB.