Asia Banking Research

Singapore has 21 applicants for just five digital banking licenses. There are going to be many more losers than winners in this race. Speculation about the likely winners is reaching a feverish pitch ahead of the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) expected announcement of the winners. The decision is expected by June.

MAS has made clear that it has little interest in large-scale disruption of the financial-services sector. The regulator certainly wants to boost competition and the quality of digital-banking services in the city-state, but in a steady, incremental manner. Evolution is necessary. Revolution is not. With that in mind, the MAS designed the application process to ensure that only firms with ample capitalization and strong potential for profitability would meet the licensing criterion.

Some analysts are adamant that Singapore needs digital banks to boost financial inclusion. That's an interesting argument, given that 98% of Singaporeans over 25 have a bank account, according to research by Allianz Global Wealth. By Allianz's estimates, globally only Israel has a higher rate of financial inclusion than the Lion City.

In Singapore's case, this type of hard data is more instructive than a nebulous concept such as being "underbanked." A report published in October 2019 by Bain & Co., Google and Temaek Holdings found that 4 in 10 Singaporeans were underbanked, implying they don't have access to all the essential financial services they need. The findings might be more convincing if the same report had not also found that 40% of Thais and 45% of Malaysians were underbanked. The latter two countries are middle income, with per-capita GDP levels far below Singapore's.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) announced on 28 January of the enforcement of a new Payment Services Act, the first comprehensive legislation of its kind that regulates distinct activities in payment services ranging from digital payments to the trading of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin and Ether.

The Payment Services Act comes at a well-coordinated time before the MAS awards a total of five digital bank licenses to a select few of its 21 reported applicants. While that may be the case, some have begun to speculate on the effects and ramifications the Act will have on fintechs that are hoping to or have already begun operations in Singapore.

The Vietnam fintech market was Southeast Asia's hottest in 2019 after Singapore, an impressive feat given that the Lion City is a hub for the entire region. From Jan. to Sept. 2019, Vietnam accounted for 36% of Southeast Asia's venture-capital fintech investment compared to 51% for Singapore, according to a December report from the United Overseas Bank (UOB),  PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Singapore Fintech Association (SFA). Vietnam was far ahead of other Asean economies, including Indonesia (12%) as well as the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia (2% each).

Vietnam's Banking Strategy Institute reckons that the nation's fintech market will reach US$9 billion in value this year, which will make it the region's fourth largest. Fast growth in the fintech sector and the potential for the industry to boost financial inclusion probably explain why Hanoi nixed a plan to cap foreign ownership in payment service intermediaries at 49%, which was proposed by the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) in November.

Australian neobanks are tapping strong demand for digital banking services to swiftly build up their deposit bases. Among the virtual banks reporting expeditious deposit growth are Xinja, Up!, Judo, 86 400 and Volt Bank. Xinja's growth has been especially impressive: It reports amassing $115 million in deposits in just 20 days. That would put Xinja on track to reach its goal of $120 million in deposits for the year by the end of February.

Singapore has never been as large a financial center as Hong Kong. In every major traditional area of finance, Hong Kong has an edge. That is not the case in fintech, where Singapore's Asean location is a boon. The world's preeminent tech giants and venture capitalists have all descended on Southeast Asia, where the underbanked are legion, regulators are keen to boost financial inclusion, and consumers are digitally adroit. Singapore is ideally positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. 

Southeast Asian ride-hailing giants Grab and Gojek aim to reinvent themselves as digital banks amidst rising concern about profitability among cash-burning tech startups. Becoming a profitable digital bank is the only way either of the companies will have a crack at super-app status. Bundling ride hailing, food delivery, plus other odds and ends won't do the trick. China's WeChat - the world's first and only super app to date - cemented its dominance by introducing a handy e-wallet and later building out a more comprehensive suite of digital banking services.

In 2019, the Asian tiger economies cautiously welcomed virtual banks. The financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore as well as the advanced manufacturing hubs of Taiwan and South Korea can all benefit from digital-first competition in their respective financial sectors, where incumbents dominate. That has led to some complacency.  

Across Southeast Asia, traditional banks and fintechs have been inking partnerships. The fintechs, despite the "fin" in their name, almost always have stronger technology than banking acumen. In contrast, banks have deep financial expertise and clunky legacy IT systems.

In the Kingdom of Cambodia, the line between traditional banking and fintech is increasingly blurred. ABA Bank, a traditional lender which has become a leader in digital banking, is a good example. In a January report, AsiaMoney notes that the bank has undergone an unlikely transformation. Founded in 1996, ABA did not perform especially well for the first 13 years of its existence. But a decade ago, under the guidance of some deep-pocked investors from Central Asia, the bank hit the reset button and changed its business strategy. Today, ABA is a leader among Cambodian banks with assets of about US$4 billion.

The Philippines has issued a digital banking license to Tonik Financial, a Singapore-based fintech. The firm claims to be both the first native digital bank in the Philippines and the Southeast Asia region. The Philippines central bank, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), approved Tonik for a license that will allow it to offer a full range of retail banking services, with a focus on retail deposits and consumer loans.

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