When Singapore announced the winners of four digital banking licenses in December 2020, one name stood out because most of us did not recognize it: Greenland Financial Holdings. To say the Shanghai-based real estate company Greenland was a “dark horse” candidate for a license would be an understatement. It was not even widely known that the company and its blockchain trade finance partner Linklogis had thrown their hats in the ring. Since winning the license, the two companies have named their digital bank “Green Link Digital Bank.”
As the most cash-loving advanced economy in Asia, Japan has not historically been eager to digitize its financial services sector – with a few exceptions. One of those is Rakuten Bank, which launched in the twilight of Web 1.0 back in the year 2000. At 23 years of age, Rakuten Bank must be one of the oldest digital lenders in Asia, if not the oldest. Gradually, other online banks are entering the Japanese market to compete with Rakuten.
Japan’s largest bank is increasingly looking to digital finance in Southeast Asia as an avenue for growth, as its home market is mature, slow to digitally transform and constrained to some degree by an ageing population. In contrast, Southeast Asia’s largest countries still have ample low-hanging fruit, especially Indonesia, a key area of focus for MUFG.
One of our favorite ironies about digital banking in Asia Pacific is that incumbent banks have a growing role in the segment, from Hong Kong to Singapore to Taiwan to Australia. It wasn’t supposed to be this way – at least not to our knowledge. What ever happened to good old-fashioned scrappy startup-driven disruption? With that in mind, we turn our attention to two digital lenders that can technically be classified as startups, but are backed by Standard Chartered, a huge incumbent lender operating in 59 countries that earns most of its revenue in Asia.
Singapore has long been seen as the Switzerland of Asia, a pro-business, largely neutral state with a huge financial services sector catering to an international clientele. Like Switzerland, Singapore is an integral part of the surrounding region yet also has a strong independent streak and never leans too far to one geopolitical side.
Hong Kong has been busy preparing to roll out the red carpet for digital assets, but there are other emerging areas of financial services that are less volatile and trouble prone, and well, more sustainable. To that end, Hong Kong way want to focus more attention on green/sustainable finance given the reality of climate change and the significant opportunities the segment is expected to provide. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that combined ESG assets could surge to US$53 trillion by 2025, with the Asia-Pacific region driving “the next leg of growth.”
South Korea’s Viva Republica is defying the tech slump that has frozen funding for many fintech unicorns, both real and aspiring. In late December, it finalized a US$405 million Series G funding and it says it is now valued at 9.1 trillion won ($7 billion), up from 8.5 trillion won in June 2021, when it raised $410 million in pre-Series G funding at a $7.4 billion (8.5 trillion won) valuation.
Australia’s neobank experiment has largely gone awry, with three of the four original online lenders defunct or now part of an incumbent bank. To be sure, startups fail or get bought all the time – more often than they thrive as independent companies – but we dare say that was not the expectation of the neobanks’ founders, nor Australian regulators who sought to introduce greater competition into the financial services sector dominated by four incumbent juggernauts. The one neobank that remains from that first cohort is Judo, which has carved out a niche lending to SMEs, listed successfully on the ASX and seems poised to reach profitability before long.
Better late than never? That was our first reaction to the news that at long last, Thailand has reached a decision on digital banks: It will allow them by 2025, and start accepting applications later this year. By 2024, Thailand will issue three digital banking licenses. And of course, online lenders will have to satisfy certain requirements, which we expect to be stringent and effectively eliminate any scrappy startups from even bothering to throw their hats in the ring.
When it comes to Singapore’s digital banks, is hindsight 20/20? Probably so. The hype surrounding them never quite corresponded to reality, and in many regards accurately mirrored the broader tech bubble that pushed up the valuations of so many cash-burning startups into the stratosphere. Like their counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore’s digital banks will need to spend a lot of time and money to effectively penetrate what is already a mature, well-served market.
Among Hong Kong’s eight virtual banks, WeLab Bank stands out for a few reasons. First, it is not simply an offshoot of large tech firms and/or incumbent lenders like most of its competitors. WeLab is a startup that was established a decade ago as an online consumer credit lending platform. It has been operating in mainland China since 2014 and Southeast Asia since 2018. Though the mainland market is and will remain important for WeLab, its interest in Southeast Asia – Indonesia in particular – shows the company has a regional vision for its business that contrasts with that of its competitors focused only on Hong Kong and the mainland.
Cambodia has been on the gray list of the international financial crime watchdog FATF for several years due to its inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls. Gray list designation requires additional levels of compliance for international financial transactions with the kingdom, which while not a dealbreaker for foreign investment in Cambodia, makes it more troublesome than in countries not on the list. As Cambodia emerges from the pandemic, it is eager to be removed from the gray list to help boost its Covid-battered economy, which contracted 3.1% in 2020 and grew just 2.6% in 2021.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, digital banks have sprung up at a rapid rate in recent years. Regulators have ostensibly encouraged the establishment of online-only banks to spur greater competition in the banking sector, which in most markets is dominated by incumbent lenders afflicted with complacency of varying severity.
The Hong Kong financial center lexicon is ever expanding. Depending whom you ask, Hong Kong is an international financial center, Asia’s most important financial center, China’s offshore financial center or some combination of all three. Historically, Hong Kong liked to stay out of politics and thrived on its combination of laissez-faire capitalism, strong, independent legal system and knack for acting as a bridge to the Chinese mainland. Going forward, those factors will remain integral to Hong Kong’s success, but important questions remain about how economic and financial policy choices on the mainland will affect the city’s fortunes.