Asia Payments Research

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.

In Vietnam's fiercely competitive e-wallet market, Momo stands out. The company has attracted deep-pocketed backers including private-equity firm Warburg Pincus and Silicon Valley fund Goodwater. Momo has is Vietnam's largest e-wallet by users, with 25 million, which it plans to double in two years. Momo recently completed a mammoth funding round that reportedly raised US$100 million that the company will use for strategic acquisitions and to enhance its app with biometrics technology.

WhatsApp has something most other would-be super apps do not: the stickiness of an immensely popular messaging service. And unlike China's WeChat, WhatsApp is a global phenomenon, with large user bases in a diverse array of countries: India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and the United States to name a few. Having eschewed advertising, WhatsApp hopes to monetize all those users with digibanking and e-commerce services. If WhatsApp becomes a global one-stop shop for communication, shopping and banking it will be the only app of its kind.

Afterpay has to be feeling pretty good heading into 2021. It has become one of the largest buy now, pay later (BNPL) firms in the world and is growing fast just as the sector hits its stride. BNPL is not a new idea, but Afterpay has repackaged it neatly: four interest-free installments with no fees at all for customers as long as they pay on time. Retailers are willing to take on the risk of late or missed payments because Afterpay is bringing in more business for them. The company's sales grew 112% year-on-year in November to a record US$2.1 billion. Its share prices have risen roughly 270% to A$113.29 from A$30.63 when the year began.

South Korea's digital payments market has grown at a brisk clip amid the pandemic. From January to November, contactless payments rose 17% as businesses and consumers shifted to online transactions, according to the Bank of Korea. E-commerce transactions rose 26% during that period. It is against this backdrop that the Korean startup CHAI sees an opportunity for an API that allows online merchants to accept more than 20 payment systems.

E-commerce is an ideal platform from which to launch a digital payments business. Alibaba figured that out early on, launching Alipay back in 2004. Today, it is hard for any e-wallet to become as dominant as Alipay, especially in a market as competitive as Indonesia. Yet Sea Group's ShopeePay is fast becoming one of Indonesia's most popular e-wallets on the back of Shopee's ascension. Shopee was Indonesia's top e-commerce platform by site visits in 2019 and looks set to repeat that feat this year.

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