Asia Banking Research

Ever since news of the 1MDB scandal broke, Singapore has been on heightened alert for financial crime. As Southeast Asia’s premier financial hub, it faces certain risks. In the past few years, it has been grappling with a rise in digital financial crime that has dovetailed with the timeline of the coronavirus pandemic. While online scams and phishing remain a vexing problem, the city-state now also has to contend with bad actors in the cryptocurrency sector in which it has invested considerable resources.

In recent years, digital banks have become increasingly common in Asia Pacific, including in the region’s advanced economies. Though these markets are well banked, regulators have sought to introduce greater market competition and promote digital transformation among oft-complacent incumbents.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

As Australian banks in recent years have been hit with unprecedentedly high fines for money-laundering violations, they have stepped up de-risking to reduce their exposure to the types of clients they believe could land them in regulatory hot water. In some cases, the banks simply refuse to do business with firms without good reason.

When we talk about countries that have inadequate anti-money laundering (AML) and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls, we usually mention how those deficiencies can cause a country to be pleased on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) gray list. Asian countries with the gray list designation who are working to be removed from it include the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar. But there is a more serious designation for countries seen as dangerous conduits for illicit financial activity: the blacklist. Unfortunately for Myanmar, it may soon end up on the blacklist.

We wish we can say we are surprised but we are not: Taiwan’s digital banks are failing to disrupt the country’s financial services sector. While showing potential to exist as digital financial services platforms in a way incumbent Taiwanese lenders do not, Line Bank, Rakuten Bank and Next Bank nonetheless have a long road ahead to reach profitability, with only lending offering money-making (rather than losing) possibility in the short term. For at least the next few years, the digital lenders will struggle to break even on deposits and payments, while they are for the time being restricted from potentially more lucrative businesses like wealth management.

Ending up on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list is unenviable. For developed economies and FATF members like Australia, it is not a common occurrence. However, FATF has previously found certain elements of Australia’s anti-money laundering (AML) controls deficient, and many of the same problems keep occurring. In recent years, several of the country’s largest banks have been slapped with massive fines, while its casinos are not doing enough to fight financial crime.

Indonesia is the most important market for Alibaba in Southeast Asia and arguably its most important market outside of China, period. Increasingly, Alibaba is focused on Indonesia’s burgeoning digital financial services market. Yet Alibaba recognized early on that it would be impossible to replicate the Alipay model outside of China and instead chose to take strategic stakes in various Indonesian fintech firms or companies with financial services arms.

No country likes to end up on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list. It means that FATF has determined a country’s anti-money laundering (AML) and/or counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls are somewhat deficient. It could be worse – they have a black list too – but that is reserved for the likes of North Korea. The Philippines has been on the FATF grey list since June 2021 and is hoping to exit by January 2023. But it will not be an easy task given persistent concerns about the country’s Bank Secrecy Law, inadequate regulation of the casino gaming sector and seeming reluctance to use the law to fight financial crime more aggressively.

We cannot think of a single Asian market where the arrival of digital banks has upended the competitive landscape. That’s not to say that digital lenders cannot put pressure on incumbents, especially to up their digital game and do something about that clunky legacy IT infrastructure. It is just that getting people to switch banks is much harder than doing the same for say, ride-hailing or food-delivery apps. With the arrival of digital banks in Malaysia, most incumbent lenders will feel some pressure, and consolidation may be in some of their interests, but the big players are unlikely to lose significant market share.

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