Asia Banking Research

Australia is struggling to win its fight against financial crime in part because its biggest banks cannot effectively contain money laundering. The bank themselves are rarely willing participants in illicit activity. Rather, ineffective money-laundering controls foment compliance weaknesses that criminals exploit.

Many Asian countries struggle to contain money laundering, which is usually perpetrated by non-state actors. North Korea is different. The North Korean state itself is deeply involved in money-laundering schemes, often in cahoots with Chinese entities, to help Pyongyang evade economic sanctions, access hard currency and fund North Korea's nuclear program. Confidential bank documents first reviewed by BuzzFeed News and part of the FinCEN files show just how successful North Korea continues to be in laundering large amounts of money through the global financial system.

In mid-September, Tencent opened a Singapore office that will serve as its regional hub, reflecting the Chinese tech giant's growing focus on Southeast Asia. Tencent aims to build a digital services ecosystem in the Asean countries that replicates the success it has achieved at home. Digital banking forms one cornerstone of that strategy, although less overtly than in the case of Tencent's rival Alibaba. Rather than applying for its own digital bank license in Singapore, like Ant Group, Tencent is instead relying on strategic stakes it has taken in internet companies, such as Singapore's own Sea.

Neobanks like to talk about disruption, but in Hong Kong, they're actually putting their money where their mouth is. Five of the eight virtual banks approved to operate in the former British colony have gone live: ZA Bank, Airstar, WeLab, Fusion Bank and Livi Bank. While none of them has a game-changing value proposition yet, their low fees, digital agility and high deposit rates (at least during a promotional period) are bound to attract customer interest. Their digital acumen is taking on new importance during the pandemic, which recently flared up in Hong Kong.

Grab isn't just Southeast Asia's most valuable startup: It's also the most ambitious. Grab aims to give digital banking pride of place in an ecosystem heretofore reliant on ride hailing and food delivery. The user base is there to make the digibanking gambit work, Grab says, pointing to its millions of passengers, drivers and food-delivery customers.

China's ByteDance is quietly deepening a push into fintech in Asia as the future of its U.S. operations hangs in the balance. ByteDance's popular short-form mobile video platform TikTok has become a major front in the U.S.-China technology war. Now more than ever, ByteDance needs to monetize its services. Fintech could be a way forward for the company, whose US$100 billion valuation makes it the world's most valuable startup in private markets.

Singapore may be the Lion City, but there's an elephant in the room when it comes to digital banking: Incumbents are readier than ever for the challengers. Singapore's Big Three of DBS, OCBC and UOB have been digitizing for years with varied degrees of success. The pandemic gave them an opportunity to fast track the process. After all, when retail branches are closed and everyone stays home, banking digitally becomes a necessity, not a convenience.

The Taiwanese government recently announced its intention to transform Taiwan into a regional finance hub. Wealth management is an area of focus. One would think that the government would see a chance to simultaneously bolster fintech development in Taiwan, which has lagged compared to the other Asian tiger economies: Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. Yet the Taiwan government remains wary of disruption in the financial sector. As demonstrated in the Financial Supervisory Commission's (FSC) new three-year fintech roadmap, Taiwan remains committed to a cautious, prescriptive approach to fintech that prioritizes strengthening the digital capabilities of incumbents.

Gaming firm Razer is about as far from a bank as you can get. While it has a fintech arm, Razer's bread and butter lies in gaming hardware, software and services. Fintech, which refers primarily to payments in Razer's case, is a means for gamers to make in-game purchases. Razer  sees a big opportunity though: Turn its many millennial gamers into banking customers. After all, they're already spending money digitally in the Razer ecosystem. 

In addition to the digital full bank (DFB) license it has applied for in Singapore, Razer is also aiming to develop a larger international digital finance network. A logical first step would be to apply for a digital bank license in neighboring Malaysia, where Razer already has a strong presence. Malaysia is the only market besides Singapore where Razer's e-wallet Razer Pay is in wide use. Malaysia also recently signaled its willingness to apply more non-financial firms to apply for digital bank licenses.

Capital requirements for a Malaysia digital bank license are fairly stringent, with an absolute minimum of RM 100 million (US$23.7 million) necessary during an initial three to five-year period and later RM 300 million. As a listed company, Razer, however, could easily meet them. It has about US$500 million in cash on hand, according to an August statement.

Razer is also reportedly considering expanding its digital finance business to other Southeast Asian markets, India and Latin America. 

Razer would not be the first gaming giant to become a digital banking juggernaut. Tencent has made that transformation, although it wasn't a straight shot from gaming to fintech. The WeChat messaging app played a paramount role.

Tencent-invested Sea is also trying to make the jump from gaming to banking, but unlike Razer, Sea has a large e-commerce business. That makes Sea's bid to support SMEs more convincing than if it were a gaming company alone. Sea already has many small businesses in its ecosystem, while Razer has primarily potential retail banking customers.

Sea and Razer have one thing in common though: Both are ascendant but still loss-making. Hong Kong-listed Razer posted a net loss of US$17.7 million ($24.2 million) from January to June, a 64% improvement over the US$47.7 million it lost a year earlier. Revenue rose 25% annually to US$447.5 million on the back of strong demand for its gaming products.

Razer's fintech business recorded US$1.8 billion in total payment volume in the first half of the year, up 114.3% year-on-year. The business grew briskly thanks to rapid customer acquisition, both on the merchant and consumer sides - rising digital entertainment consumption amid the pandemic helped drive growth in the latter market segment.

"The fundamentals of our business remain as solid as ever," Min-Liang Tan, co-founder and CEO of Razer, said in a statement. That, "coupled with our strong operating cost discipline and our strong cash position of over US$500 million, put us in good stead, even during times of challenging global economic conditions."

After a rocky 2019, South Korea's Toss has performed strongly thus far in 2020. Despite the pandemic, Toss broke even for the first time in April. In late August Toss's parent company Viva Republica announced it had raised US$173 million, bringing its total war chest to US$560 million and its valuation to US$2.6 billion. Investors in the fundraising round include Aspex Management, Kleiner Perkins Digital Growth Fund, Altos Ventures, Goodwater Capital, and Greyhound Capital. Toss will use the cash to support the next stage of its expansion.

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