Asia Banking Research

Revolut always thinks big, so it is no surprise that the UK neobank unicorn is now billing itself as a global financial super app. Revolut's CEO Nikolay Storonsky spoke about this topic at Singapore's recent Fintech Festival. It was hard not to see the irony there. While Revolut was talking about its super app dreams, Grab-Singtel, Sea Group and Ant Group were mulling how to best use their newly won Singapore digital bank licenses. Revolut was not even in the running for one. It dropped out of the race more than a year ago due to the stringent capitalization requirements.

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.

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