Asia Payments Research

By now it's a familiar story: COVID-19 is driving cashless payments adoption in Southeast Asia. As one of the region's key economies and recipients of fintech investment, Vietnam is a market to watch. What's notable about Vietnam is that it's better poised for an economic recovery than almost any other country because of how well it has controlled the coronavirus pandemic. While the rest of the world was in recession, Vietnam's economy grew 0.36% in the second quarter, beating a 0.9% contraction forecast by economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

Southeast Asia's two most valuable tech startups are determined to reinvent themselves, transforming from ride-hailing giants into digital banks. Singapore's Grab is leading in every Southeast Asian market but one: Indonesia, which happens to be where its arch-rival Gojek is based. Having recently received investments from Facebook and PayPal, Gojek looks to have the edge in the region's largest economy. But Grab is determined to prevail there. That's why the Grab-backed digital wallet Ovo is reportedly planning to merge with Dana, which is backed by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial. Together, Ovo and Dana might be able to give Gojek's fintech arm GoPay a run for its money.

Ant Financial has invested $73.5 million in Wave Money (Digital Money Myanmar), a mobile financial services firm that aims to boost financial inclusion in one of Asia's poorest countries. Per-capita GDP is just $1326 in Myanmar, according to the World Bank, and 75% of its 54.5 million people lack a bank account. Ant's investment in Wave follows the Chinese fintech giant's announcement last November that it was planning to raise $1 billion for a fund to invest in Asean and India-based mobile internet startups. Ant is reportedly keen to back more fintechs in those markets.

A unicorn cannot thrive on ride hailing alone. That's why Indonesia's Gojek is betting on fintech to bolster its fortunes. Its arch-rival Grab is taking a similar road. Starting with payments, the ride-hailing giants aim to transform themselves into bonafide financial services providers, monetizing customer data by using it to create different digital banking products. Despite the pandemic, Gojek managed to raise another US$1.2 billion in March to support its expansion efforts. Gojek then acquired the Indonesian payments startup Moka and established a tie-up with the fintech Pluang, which offers digital gold investments.

Malaysia was gradually moving in a cashless direction long before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, forcing it into lockdown from mid-March until early May. The virus just may have accelerated Malaysia's cashless push though, as people out of necessity opted for contactless payments instead of those involving contact. Now, digital wallets are offering new incentives to consumers and merchants, while policymakers are tightening regulations around the use of cash. Malaysia's cashless vision appears to have gotten an unexpected boost from the pandemic.

The economic downturn fomented by the coronavirus pandemic has been a rude awakening for cash-burning fintech startups. They and their backers are finding that there's a price to pay for championing breakneck growth over profitability. In contrast, fintechs with solid balance sheets, like London-based digital money transfer firm TransferWise (profitable for three years in a row), are poised to pursue targeted expansion. Tapping resilient demand for its cross-border payments services, TransferWise recently inked a partnership with China's Alipay and expanded to the United Arab Emirates.

Libra is the most visible profile prong of Facebook's fintech offensive, but it may not be the most important. Not for now, anyway. U.S. officials and regulators remain circumspect about Facebook's digital currency project. Facebook has a long way to go before it wins their trust. In Asia, Facebook has a seemingly simpler task: Roll out the digital wallet of WhatsApp to monetize its large regional user base, concentrated in India and Indonesia. That's proving to be difficult too though.

In every crisis, there are opportunities. While many investors are tightening their belts during the coronavirus pandemic, some are opening their wallets. Now is the time to double down on certain investments. Take Australia's Airwallex as an example. The Melbourne-based cross-border payments platform closed a mammoth US$160 million (A$250 million) funding round in April, bringing its valuation to US$1.8 billion from US$1 billion. Less than half of the capital was raised in January, according to Australian Financial Review. Airwallex managed to raise the rest amid the pandemic's surge.

Across Asia, the cashless drive had been gaining momentum long before COVID-19 broke out in late 2019. In less than a decade, China, the region's largest and the world's No. 2 economy, has transformed from a cash-dominant into a cash-light economy. Its neighbors have been following suit.

A 2019 McKinsey study found that digital payments in Asia are growing at a roughly 15% annual clip, more than 2.5 times the typical economic growth rate in the region. Overall, cashless payments have been underpinning the rise of digital banking across APAC.

Asia may be at an inflection point for cashless payments as the coronavirus rages globally and hygiene concerns about the use of physical currency are growing.

The leading enabler of digital commerce across the Middle East and Africa region, Network International, made an agreement with Tencent Holdings Limited in February 2020 that will enable millions of Chinese tourists to transact through Network International’s extensive UAE merchant network with their WeChat mobile wallets.

The largest merchant acquirer in the United Arab Emirates, Network will perform as a settlement partner or acquirer as well as solution provider in order to enable mobile-based transactions via WeChat Pay at points of sale as well as for online purchases.

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