Asia Banking Research

Hong Kong's eight virtual banks largely represent vested banking and tech interests in the city. Most of the newcomers are actually oldcomers if you stop to think about how well established they are outside of Hong Kong's nascent digital banking segment. WeLab, a Hong Kong-based fintech startup, is the exception. Founded in 2013 by ex-Citibank executive Simon Loong and two other partners, the company has steadily grown over the past seven years, and says it now has 40 million customers and disbursed more than HK$50 billion in loans in Hong Kong, mainland China and Indonesia. WeLab's Hong Kong virtual bank went live in July.

It's good to be Kakao Bank. Kakao was already South Korea's most successful neobank story before it reported record earnings in the second quarter of 26.8 billion won ($22.6 million), a nearly 900% year-on-year increase from 3.0 billion won a year earlier. Kakao's net profit for the first half of the year reached 45.3 billion won, a more than fourfold increase from 9.6 billion in the first half of 2019. That Kakao achieved this exponential growth amid the pandemic and a weak overall South Korean economy is particularly impressive.

According to Kakao, its profits surged on the back of rising net interest income and commissions from the sale of financial products. "We were able to make more profit from increased revenues from lending and fees from partnering with credit card companies and brokerages," the company said in a statement published by South Korean media.

The picture for Kakao Bank's lending business is fairly rosy. Its outstanding loan balance grew to 17.68 trillion won in the second quarter, up from 14.88 trillion won a year earlier. Financial inclusion is one name of the game as well: Kakao said it provided 660 billion won in mid-rate loans to consumers with mid- to low-level credit scores from January to June and plans to disburse a total of 1 trillion won of such loans in 2020.

Like many successful fintechs, Kakao Bank is steadily developing partnerships with key incumbents. It has four local credit card partners in South Korea, including Shinhan Card and Samsung Card. From April to July, Kakao issued 260,000 credit cards, according to The Korea Herald.

Kakao Bank also has a burgeoning equities trading business. As of late June, it had more than 2.18 million such accounts, up from 1.14 million in December 2019. Its partners among incumbents include Korea Investment & Securities, NH Investment Securities and KB Securities.

At the same time, Kakao Bank benefits from the stickiness of the Kakao ecosystem, which is a super app in all but name. Kakao Bank already has 11 million monthly active users, more than half who are under age 50. And there are many more potential customers where those came from: The dominant KakaoTalk messaging app has almost 45 million monthly users, about 87% of South Korea's population.

Thanks to its strong brand name and ecosystem, Kakao Bank managed to reach profitability in just two years from its establishment in 2017. Further buoying its growth was when its parent company Kakao Corp became the virtual bank's majority shareholder, the first instance in Korea of a non-financial firm holding a majority stake in a bank. That change allowed Kakao Bank to issue new shares worth 500 billion won and increase its paid-in capital to 1.8 trillion won.

When it comes to Asian financial centers, Hong Kong and Singapore are no longer the only games in town. Tokyo, Seoul and Sydney have recently signaled intent to bolster their financial sectors and take on a larger regional role. Yet right on Hong Kong's doorstep there is another potential contender: Taiwan. In recent weeks, Taiwan's government has highlighted its plan to develop a more globally oriented financial sector. That will be easier said than done. Taiwan takes a fundamentally conservative approach to finance that will not be easily changed.

Before covid-19, the sky seemed to be the limit for Australia's virtual banks. They were rapidly accruing users, in some cases surpassing their own forecasts. Venture capital kept flowing into their coffers. The pandemic slammed the brakes on the neobanks' ascendancy. Demand in Australia remains for innovative digital banking services - if the neobanks can survive the downturn. Since the neobanks are startups built for fast growth, rather than steely resilience, they face a long road ahead.

The pandemic has disrupted Malaysia's digital banking plans, but the ensuing delay may be a boon for interested firms that now have more time to select partners. The original contenders for up to five digital bank licenses include ride-hailing giant Grab, telecoms juggernaut Axiata Group Bhd (owner of e-wallet Boost) and the banks CIMB, Affin Hong Leong, AMMB Holdings and Standard Chartered Bank. Those banks are now reportedly less interested in obtaining a license, while several non-financial firms may throw their hat into the ring: gaming giant Razer, conglomerate Sunway Group, telecoms company Green Packet. Hong Kong investment bank AMTD may also bid for a license.

Southeast Asia's most valuable tech startup is coming down to earth at last, despite maintaining a sky-high valuation of more than US$14 billion. Faced with the pandemic-induced downturn, Singapore-based Grab is scaling back its ambitions and remarkably, cutting costs. That involves eliminating some superfluous business units and trimming about 5% of its workforce. Grab's professed goal is to rejig its operations to focus on three core businesses: ride-hailing, food delivery and digital banking. Its unstated goal is to get its finances in order so that its bid for a Singapore digital full back license is successful.

Australia launched its open banking regime on July 1, ushering in an era of increased competition and customer choice. The regime allows a customer of any of Australia's Big Four banks - National Australia Bank, Commonwealth Bank, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and Westpac - to ask that their account and card data be sent to a third party accredited by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. In November, mortgages and personal loan data will be introduced, while smaller banks will join in 2021.

Cambodia's digital banking initiatives are increasingly on the money. The Kingdom has focused on fast-tracking digital banking to boost financial inclusion and develop the broader banking sector, which only serves a limited portion of the population. Just 22% of Cambodia's population of 16.2 million is banked. The good news is that fintech is bringing more Cambodians into the formal financial system. In 2019, active digital wallets in Cambodia jumped 64% to 5.22 million, according to a June report by the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC).

Taiwan's virtual banks were supposed to go live this summer but the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the launch date. The three neobanks, which include consortia led by Line Financial, Chunghwa Telecom and Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, will likely launch later in the year, according to Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC). The three neobanks have yet to start one-month operation simulation tests, a pilot period required by the FSC to ensure the banks are in shipshape.

The Singapore digital banking race is accelerating. The Monetary Authority of Singapaore (MAS) has winnowed down the applicant field from 21 to 14. While the MAS did not say which contenders failed to make the cut, observers close to the matter say that the consortia headed by Grab/Singtel, Sea, Razer and MatchMove have all advanced to the next round. Those four applicants are all bidding for a coveted digital full bank (DFB) license, which permits holders to serve both retail and non-retail customers. The MAS plans to issue a maximum of two DFB licenses.

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