It is a testament to the difficulty of establishing a viable international financial center in Asia that so many first-tier cities in the region are vying to compete with Hong Kong yet none is truly a peer competitor. Even Singapore, undoubtedly the most important fintech hub in Southeast Asia if not the entire region, cannot match Hong Kong in the capital markets space. Seoul is the latest Asian city to throw its hat in the ring to become a global financial center.
On April 29, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) awarded digital banking licenses to five consortia primarily led by large tech firms and incumbent financial institutions. The one exception was a consortium that includes Grab and Singtel and is co-led by Kuok Brothers, a massive conglomerate that focuses on real estate, shipping and agribusiness, among other things.
Indonesia’s digibanking sector continues to be among the busiest in Asia Pacific with a flurry of deals in recent weeks. Key deals include buy now pay later (BNPL) firm FinAccel’s purchase of a majority stake in PT Bank Bisnis Internasional and SME financing platform Funding Societies and used car marketplace Carro investing an undisclosed amount in Bank Index Selindo (Bank Index). Indonesian peer-to-peer lender Amartha is also reportedly in talks to acquire 70% of local bank PT Bank Victoria Syariah.
One good unicorn deserves another. Just five months after the Philippines minted its first fintech unicorn – and indeed first private company to hit a US$1 billion valuation – it has produced another. While the first unicorn was Alibaba-backed Mynt, operator of the GCash e-wallet, the latest one is Tencent-backed Voyager Innovations, which operates the digital wallet PayMaya.
Digital banks tend to lose money in their early years of operation. It is usually not a question of if, but how much. In the case of Taiwan’s banks, the losses are sufficient to potentially require an increase in capitalization. Line Bank lost almost NT$2.3 billion (US$78.7 million) in about one year of operation while Rakuten Bank lost NT$705 million (US$24.1 million).
Ant Group and Globe Telecom-backed Mynt was the Philippines' one and only unicorn until April 12 when Voyager hit the milestone. Mynt reached the status last November after raising US$300 million from global investors including Warburg Pincus and Insight Partners. Mynt made good on its promise to become a “double unicorn” by reaching a US$2 billion valuation. While its long-term prospects in the vastly underbanked Philippines look good, questions remain about Mynt’s business model and the timing of an eventual IPO.
Australia’s casino gaming sector has long had lax money laundering controls. However, historically, Australian banks have borne the brunt of regulatory ire for money laundering breaches. Both Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Westpac have paid massive fines for such violations in recent years. However, with AUSTRAC launching a probe into Crown Melbourne and Crown Perth on March 1 and allegations emerging later in the month that the Star Entertainment Group laundered money in Macau, the casino gaming sector is likely to come under much greater scrutiny.
Southeast Asia is the most dynamic market for the digital economy in the world, especially e-commerce and fintech. It has a population of 655.3 million, which ought to be big enough for most young tech companies. Not Sea Group though. Sea has done well in the region, but like many platform companies, it is getting overly ambitious, overextending itself, and making costly mistakes.
We had thought Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) would have announced the winners of Malaysia’s five digital banking licenses by now, as the deadline was originally set for the end of March. The BNM has been mum about any reasons for a delay, though the longer deadline could give Capital A (the erstwhile AirAsia), one of the more enthusiastic applicants for a digital banking license, more time to improve its financial condition. With 29 applicants, there will be many more losers than winners in this race.
While Kakao’s fundamentals remain strong, the Korean super app has been struggling of late amid a perfect storm of regulatory travails, investor disappointment and awkward leadership changes. In the past six months, Kakao Bank and Kakao Pay’s shares have both fallen about 29%.
In mid-2021, Revolut became the UK’s most valuable fintech with a valuation of US$33 billion. Though the company lost US$280 million in the 2020 fiscal year, it has continued to spend heavily on expansion efforts in a bid to build a “global financial super app.” Revolut has long had its eye on the Asia-Pacific region and recently moved to strengthen its position in both the India and Australia markets.
Banking has been critical to Revolut’s ascendancy in Europe. However, the company’s origins do not lie in deposit taking and lending. Indeed, Revolut began as a multi-currency travel card offering favorable exchange rates. In India, Revolut is returning to its roots with a focus on cross-border payments, as seen in the company’s recent strategic acquisition of Indian international money transfer firm Arvog Forex for an undisclosed sum. This deal – which follows Revolut’s Indian arm raising US$45.5 million from its UK parent – will allow Revolut to launch a cross-border remittances service for Indian customers in the second half of the year.
The Philippine central bank BSP decided in October 2021 to cap the number of digital bank licenses at six for the next three years. It awarded licenses to Overseas Filipino Bank, Tonik Digital Bank, UNObank, Union Digital Bank, GOtyme and Maya Bank. The BSP wants to see how the arrival of digibanks affects the country’s financial industry before it issues any new licenses. Thus far, the digital lenders appear to be stimulating a huge amount of market activity.
Lax anti-money laundering (AML) controls resulted in Cambodia being placed on FATF’s grey list once again in February 2019. Since then, Cambodia has been trying to improve its AML capabilities but running into one obstacle after another. In Nov. 2021, the United States Department of State cautioned businesses about the risks of doing business in the kingdom in a new report, citing risks for the financial, real estate, casino, and infrastructure sectors.
Indonesia will probably be the first country in Southeast Asia where the reality of digital banking lives up to the hype. The vast archipelago nation has everything online banks need to thrive: a huge market, amenable regulators, sufficient connectivity and eager deep-pocketed investors. Even the complex geography of the country, which is made up of 17,508 islands (6000 of which are inhabited), favors branchless banking.