China’s largest ever tech crackdown has failed to dethrone Alipay and WeChat Pay from their dominance of the country’s fintech sector, even if it has reduced their profitability. For better or worse, the duopoly seems to have staying power, especially in payments, the stickiness of the respective super apps evident. However, there has long been a line of thinking that payments interoperability and the digital renminbi together will pose a threat to the duopoly. Following recent comments by a senior People’s Bank of China (PBoC) official about the need to standardize QR codes, there is renewed speculation that the payments hegemony of China’s fintech juggernauts could be waning.
A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.
Cross-border payments in Asia Pacific have made significant strides in recent years, buoyed by strong economic growth and steady digitization of financial services. Estimated by McKinsey & Co. to have grown at 6% annually from 2011-2019, the region’s cross-border payments account for an increasingly large share of a global market expected to reach US$156 trillion globally this year.
Singapore-based B2B payments firm Thunes is stepping up its global expansion. Following its securing of a major payment institution license in France in late 2021, Thunes has continued to grow its global footprint. This has included partnering with Alipay, broad expansion in Greater China and establishing operations in Saudi Arabia.
Southeast Asian countries have for several years been interested in establishing a regional cross-border payments system. Full payments interoperability could be possible in Southeast Asia as early as November 2022, Fitch Solutions Risk and Industry Research said in a recent research note, citing comments made by Southeast Asian central bankers in July. Yet if we take a closer look, we find that the linkages are predominantly bilateral and there are still some kinks to be ironed out before a truly multilateral system of real-time retail payment rails can be established.
We remember a time, before China’s tech crackdown, when Ant Group seemed keen on building its own cross-border payments ecosystem in Southeast Asia. The Chinese fintech giant’s shopping spree took it to nearly every Asean country, while it has also rolled out wholly-owned digital banks in the Asian financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore. Then, as now, the question was always how Ant could connect the disparate components of its non-mainland China ecosystem. If it cannot, the whole will never amount to a sum greater than the individual parts.
It has been a long time since we heard anything from Dana, the Indonesian Ant Group-backed e-wallet. In the past few years as many big Asian tech firms have invested in incumbent Indonesian banks, intending to refashion them as digital lenders, standalone e-wallets, lacking banking licenses, have been at a disadvantage. Yet Dana may be able to carve out a niche within the ecosystem of Alibaba and the local conglomerate Sinar Mas following the purchase by Lazada of US$304.5 million worth of its shares from existing shareholder Emtek Group and its receipt of a fresh US$250 million investment from Sinar Mas.
Can you think of any Western fintech firms that are dominant in Asia Pacific? Somewhat dominant? Neither can we. That may be because the region has no shortage of homegrown fintech options, especially in the ultra-competitive payments segment. That is not deterring Stripe though. As one of the most valuable startups in history, the U.S. payments giant thinks big, and sees significant market opportunities across the APAC region, including through strategic partnerships.
Looking at the recent earnings statement of Australia’s Zip, we have to give the company credit for being able to put a positive spin on a troubled story. As a buy now, pay later (BNPL) firm that overextended itself, Zip now faces double trouble: a problematic business model and resources that are stretched too thin. But the fourth fiscal quarter earnings statement (April to June) highlights Zip’s revenue rising 27% year-on-year to AU$160.1 million and a 20% increase in transaction volume. Losses, however, represented 2.7% of the value of transactions.
We would say that the gravy train has been derailed for Australia’s cash-incinerating buy now, pay later (BNPL) firms, but they may not be exactly right. After all, “gravy train” implies making easy money and most of these companies never made money in the first place – if our key metric is profitability. The problems for these firms are manifest, from intense competition – and especially the arrival of deep-pocketed incumbents and tech firms to the market – to looming regulation and widening losses.
Home to about 70 fintech startups, Nepal is a nascent market for digital finance. That said, the pace of adoption in the Himalayan nation of 30 million is picking up amid the Covid-19 pandemic and with about 55% of the population unbanked, there is a need for fintech solutions that can boost financial inclusion. In the past few months, there have been several key developments that could speed up the digitization of Nepal’s financial sector.
The performance of Australian neobanks so far has been a bit underwhelming. Of the best known four (not to be confused with the big four), only Judo Bank has been an unequivocal success. Xinja collapsed about a year after receiving its banking license; 86 400 threw in the towel when it received an offer from National Australia Bank (NAB) it could not refuse, and Volt is pivoting to banking as a service. Given that it is targeting a similar SME customer demographic to Judo, the ascendant Aussie fintech Zeller could be more successful than the digital lenders focusing on the retail market.
What goes up must come down, right? Usually, yes, but with fintech startups the "up" can sometimes go on for so long that one wonders if the "down" is inevitable. This holds especially true for the buy now, pay later (BNPL) segment, which is now ascendant in India. The scale of BNPL’s growth in the subcontinent is something to behold. Indian research firm Redseer predicts that the market will reach US$45 billion to US$50 billion by 2026, an exponential increase from US$3 billion to US$3.5 billion now.
For an aspiring super app, PayPal’s performance over the past six months has been underwhelming. There is nothing “super” about its 59% decline in its share price to about US$110.50 during that period, nor the revelation that it had removed 4.5 million fraudulent user accounts. Though they were just a fraction of the company’s 425 million overall accounts, they represented a significant potential fraud risk.
Next to Indonesia, the Philippines is perhaps the most exciting emerging market for fintech investment in Southeast Asia right now. Like Indonesia, the Philippines is an island archipelago nation with a large unbanked population – 47% of the adult population – and geography that makes physical bank branches impractical in many cases. The Covid-19 pandemic has meanwhile accelerated digitization of financial services in the Philippines, a trend that looks to be irreversible. All these factors have converged to facilitate rising investment in the country’s fintech sector, with several key big-ticket deals already closed just a month into 2022.