What is going on with Malaysia’s digibanks? All that hype about who would win the licenses, lots of anticipation, the announcement of the five winners, and a year later there seems to be little demonstrable progress. According to a recent report by The Ken, Malaysian digibanks have a human capital problem: That is, they are having a hard time finding the right talent. Without the right people, the five digital lenders will not be off to a strong start.
One would be hard pressed to find any market in East Asia except the Philippines where startups are major digital banking players. In one jurisdiction after the next, regulators have ensured that incumbent lenders and in some cases large technology companies win the requisite licenses to operate online-only banks.
In the battle of Southeast Asia’s platform companies, the one that never declared itself a super app is edging out the others in digital financial services. Despite a slowdown in its gaming arm Garena, Sea Group is growing expeditiously in the e-commerce and fintech segments, a proven synergistic combination if we ever saw one. Just look at Taobao and Alipay. It’s just a more compelling one-two punch than trying to turn a ride-hailing app into a bank like Sea’s competitors are set on doing.
Japan’s largest banks are increasingly looking to fintech opportunities in Asia’s emerging markets as an avenue for growth, as their home market is mature, a laggard in digital transformation and constrained by the world’s greyest population. In contrast, much of Southeast Asia as well as India still have plenty of low-hanging fruit, whether in the payments segment, banking, or both.
While most digital banks struggle to make money, South Korea’s are largely profitable. They have been able to scale up quickly, despite negligible financial inclusion needs. According to the World Bank, almost 99% of South Koreans have a bank account. The factors that have made Kakao Bank, K Bank and Toss Bank successful are unique to South Korea and are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.
Rakuten Bank is gearing up for what will likely be Japan’s largest IPO since 2018, scheduled for April 21. The country’s oldest digital bank, which was founded in 2001 back in the days of Web 1.0 and was then known as eBank, aims to raise US$800 million at a valuation of US$2.31 billion on the Tokyo Stock Exchange with the sale of 53.95 million existing shares of Rakuten Bank Ltd to both domestic and overseas investors and the issuance of 5.55 million new shares.
Slowly but surely, Thailand’s largest incumbent banks are positioning themselves to dominate the country’s nascent digital banking segment. This is no surprise. It’s how things tend to play out in East Asia – though it’s a shame for startups. The latest Thai incumbent bank to embrace digital banking is Kasikornbank, commonly known as KBank.
In December, the Philippines' House of Representatives approved a bill establishing a sovereign wealth fund. Known as the Maharlika Investment Fund (MIF), it is an initiative of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. aimed at raising capital for infrastructure projects, among other things. The Philippines will likely seed MIF with its central bank’s dividends and investible funds from the country’s Land Bank and Development Bank.
Asia has been fortunate thus far in that the failures of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank have not had a significant impact on its financial sector. While some financial firms in the region had limited exposure to these defunct lenders, it was not enough to pose a serious problem. Indeed, S&P Global Ratings has found that of the 380 banks and nonbank financial institutions that it rates in the region, it does not anticipate any rating actions directly related to the SVB default.
It was not so long ago that Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) was singing cryptocurrency’s praises and preparing to invest US$500 million in the Thai crypto exchange Bitkub. Alas, it was not meant to be. The crypto market cratered, and one of the kingdom’s largest lenders thought better of betting so big on a sector of financial services with so much inherent risk. SCB is now pivoting to what is turning out to be familiar territory for incumbent lenders in Asia: digital banking.
After four years, Cambodia has finally been removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), indicating the watchdog no longer sees the kingdom as a country at a heightened risk of money laundering and terrorism financing. It’s an achievement for Cambodia to celebrate, especially given that it coincides with the imminent end of the coronavirus pandemic and a resumption of normal international business and travel links.
Sea Group surprised many of us with its swing to profitability in the fourth quarter, the first time the Singaporean company ever recorded positive net income. The company is much better known for losing money than making it. In the fourth quarter, Sea made a profit of US$422.8 million, compared to a loss of US$616.3 million in the same period a year earlier.
Given the competition it faces from Singapore, Hong Kong cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Over the past few years, Singapore has become a bigger fintech hub than Hong Kong, an increasingly important location for the regional headquarters of both multinational and Chinese companies, and is also quietly attracting high-net worth individuals to set up family offices.
Forgive us for being a bit skeptical about Revolut’s swing to profitability. It took an awful long time for the company to release its 2021 financial report (we’re now in 2023), and when it finally did, the £26.3m profit the company reported was less remarkable than the fact the company’s auditor could not verify £477 million in revenue from subscriptions, cards, foreign exchange and wealth activities.