Asia Payments Research

The buy now, pay later frenzy is moving from the advanced economies into emerging markets with Southeast Asia a hotspot. Given the rapid growth of fintech in the region and lack of credit card penetration in most countries it is relatively easy for BNPL to make inroads. In fact, BNPL is proving so popular that the segment is growing fast in Singapore too, where credit card penetration is 73%.

Nobody can accuse Airwallex of having modest ambitions. The Australia-founded and Hong Kong-based unicorn just raised another US$100 million in an extended Series D round at a valuation of US$2.6 billion. The U.S.'s Greenoaks was the lead investor. The cross-border payments upstart plans to use the capital injection to expand across four continents - Australia, North America, Europe and Asia.

Can buy now, pay later (BNPL) get any hotter in Australia? Judging by Commonwealth Bank of Australia's (CBA) foray into the market, yes, it can. CBA's move comes less than two weeks after PayPal announced it would enter the market. CBA is the first of Australia's big four banks to roll out a BNPL product, and it likely will not be the last. The product, CommBank BNPL, will be available to four million of the bank's retail customers for transactions up to AU$1000 from mid-2021.

Australia is a key market for PayPal in Asia Pacific. The U.S. payments giant has 9 million accounts Down Under - not too shabby for a country of 25 million people. It has a 17% share of what JP Morgan calls the "alternative payments market (essentially non-cards), ahead of Google Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. But there is a new payments game in town led by firms like Afterpay and Zip. To maintain its competitive edge in Australia, PayPal needs to enter the buy now, pay (BNPL) segment.

Stripe may be the biggest fintech to fly under the radar in Asia Pacific. In private markets, its valuation is reportedly close to US$100 billion, up from about US$35 billion in April 2020. The San Francisco-based merchant payments provider saw its fortunes soar during the pandemic as its many North American customers moved online. It is now looking east to fuel its next stage of growth, including China, India, Southeast Asia and Australia. In 2020, Stripe increased its staff in the APAC region by 40% to more than 200.

PayPal is a payments giant with super app ambitions but a small footprint in Asia. Indeed, although PayPal has been present in many Asian markets for ages, it is not a market leader in any of them. In fact, to date, it is more notable for reducing its presence - exiting the domestic payments business in both Taiwan and India, for instance - than scaling up. Becoming a bigger player in Asia will not be easy for the US$340 billion company, despite its vast resources.

Afterpay is the world's foremost buy now, pay later rising star. The Australian company has been on an unmatched hot streak, its share price surging by about 300% in 2020. At roughly AU$134, Afterpay is trading 27 times its price-to-earnings ratio. In the six months to December 31, Afterpay's overall income rose 89% to AU$420 million, even as losses reached AU$76.5 million. Merchant growth in North America was 141%. The company's active users rose 80% year-on-year to 13.1 million. It seems that nothing can slow the company's ascent, with the possible exception of tighter regulation.

It seems that almost every plucky fintech in the cross-border payments space seeks to challenge SWIFT these days. Airwallex is perhaps the best known. The Hong Kong-headquartered (but Australia-founded) unicorn boldly proclaims that it wants to rejig global payments rails at SWIFT's expense. Then there is Lightnet, which is only slightly less ambitious. Lightnet aims to dominate B2B remittances in Asia with none other than cryptocurrency, which it says will render obsolete traditional global payments methods like SWIFT and Western Union. Lightnet is focused on making cross-border payments more economical by trimming the number of intermediary parties from about five to just the sender and receiver. The company expects costs to be further trimmed as its network grows.

The clock is ticking for a Grab exit. Southeast Asia's most valuable startup has been in business now for almost nine years. It has been losing money that entire time. To be sure, Grab has seen its user base, valuation and revenue grow exponentially over that time. The company has evolved from an Uber lookalike into an aspiring super app betting on digibanking to deliver it from the red ink into the black. That could be easier said than done.

While many countries have experienced a surge in cashless payments during the pandemic, for the Philippines fast-tracking the financial sector's digital transformation is a game changer. The reason is that the Philippines is a fast-growing, highly connected and populous country (108 million people) that lacks payments incumbents. There are no entrenched credit card companies in the market. That means ascendant e-wallets like Mynt's GCash have the chance to become dominant players in one of Southeast Asia's largest emerging markets.

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