Asia Banking Research

Digital transformation in Japan’s financial sector has been a gradual process, with the earliest pure-play online lenders dating back to the early 2000s, but limited change occurring until recently. Among East Asia’s developed economies, Japan is unique in that it has an unusual number of barriers to digitization of financial services: limited financial inclusion needs, a deep affinity for cash, a comprehensive and mature banking system with branches almost anywhere customers would need them, and the world’s most elderly population. That said, the pandemic spurred Japan to speed up financial digitization, and the trend is proving to be enduring.

Platform companies in Southeast Asia all want to capitalize on fintech opportunities, but Indonesia’s Bukalapak may be better positioned than others to do so. The reason is simple: First of all, Bukalapak’s core offering is e-commerce, which is the online service that best syncs with digital financial services, especially compared to something like ride hailing. Sorry, Grab and Gojek. Second, Bukalapak is based in Indonesia, which has a huge unbanked but digitally forward population. The company can ride the waves of both surging e-commerce and digital finance adoption rates.

It was bound to happen: South Korea’s most successful digital bank has started to have global – or at least regional – ambitions. Kakao Bank is one of the few digital lenders in Asia to reach profitability quickly (within just two years) and stay there. In fact, Kakao accomplished the unlikely feat of reaching profitability and going public within five years. One of the reasons Kakao has been successful is that it has eschewed gung-ho global expansion, which has helped keep its costs at a more reasonable level than most neobanks. Now, however, it is eager to try its hand in several Southeast Asian markets.

They say it’s lonely at the top, and once you get there, someone always wants to take you down. Revolut must feel that way. It towers above most fintech startups in this era of slashed valuations, more-demanding investors and scaled-down expansion. Though Revolut’s valuation has fallen from the absurdly high US$33 billion of 2021 to a still-lofty $18 billion today, its ambitions have not diminished. The company is trumpeting the fact it now has 30 million retail customers. But there remains one factor that could cut Revolut down to size: being denied a banking license in the UK.

How many platform companies outside of China have been able to make the super app concept work? Last time we checked, the only profitable one with a thriving fintech unit is Korea’s Kakao, and the jury is still out on that company. Unlike Korea or China though, Southeast Asia is an extremely heterogenous market – if we can even call a region with 11 countries that speak many different languages a single “market” – which means that a one-size-fits-all super app was never going to be an easy sell. On top of that, Southeast Asia’s consumers have limited spending power while competition in digital services is intense. Grab’s first-quarter performance highlights the challenge platform companies in the region face.

In East Asia, digital banks often are incumbent banks and tech giants in disguise, not so much disrupting the market as putting a new spin on an old story. There are exceptions though, and the Philippines is arguably the most prominent. A unique confluence of factors, from its unique island geography (it has about 2,000 inhabited islands) to complacent incumbents to a significant unbanked population to a central government plan that relies on digital finance to rapidly boost financial inclusion, has given online lenders a real chance to shake up the market and challenge incumbent lenders.

In its competition with Hong Kong to be Asia’s top fintech hub, it is pretty clear Singapore has won. Its linkages to Southeast Asia and India – where the fintech growth story is – are superior, while Hong Kong is more narrowly focused on mainland China, where fintech peaked a while back. Singapore also weathered the pandemic better. That said, Hong Kong is emerging as a strong player in green finance, with some analysts giving it the edge over Singapore.

Singapore has long competed with Hong Kong in asset management. While the latter’s industry is still larger, the city-state’s has been growing expeditiously, buoyed by an influx of capital from China as well as the broader global super rich. Singapore's assets under management grew 16% to S$5.4 trillion (US$404.6 billion) in 2021. More than 75% of that originated outside Singapore, with about 30% coming from other Asia-Pacific countries.

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.

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