Has Airwallex dialed back its ambitions?

Written by Kapronasia || August 09 2023

Australia-founded but Hong Kong-headquartered B2B payments sensation Airwallex has had a busy 2023 thus far. Not only did it just inject US$165 million into its Singapore entity, it also secured a China payments license in March and inked a partnership with American Express in January that will allow its clients in Australia, the UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong to accept Amex cards as a payment method option. It all seems to add up to an Asia-centric growth strategy that is less grandiose than what the Financial Times described in 2020 as the company wanting to “upend the global payments system.”

With its B2B focus, Airwallex has weathered the fintech funding slump better than many companies that dabble in retail payments. Its business model does not require an endless slew of subsidies to retain customers. Rather, it early on identified the high FX fees charged by Australian banks and developed a faster, cheaper and more efficient cross-border payments service.

Airwallex is valued at $5.5 billion and is processing around US$50 billion in annualized transactions. That said, its valuation did not increase last October despite the company raising another $100 million, reflecting sobering fintech investor sentiment.

Over time, the company began to position itself as an alternative payments rail that could be a challenger to SWIFT. Airwallex isn’t the first fintech to try this strategy and it won’t be the last. And meanwhile, SWIFT has addressed some of the main complaints about its bank transfers – the slow speed, the lack of transparency, lack of data – with SWIFT gpi.

Now Airwallex says that it uses SWIFT for about 7% of its transactions and that figure could rise over time. “I wouldn't say the company's vision is to replace SWIFT,” CEO Jack Zhang said in an interview last year, adding that he sees Airwallex as “more complementary to the SWIFT network.”

The reality is that Airwallex is more likely to thrive focusing on serving specific B2B segments in the APAC region than trying to topple SWIFT as the largest global payments rail. To that end, we imagine that Airwallex’s capabilities in foreign exchange transactions and international fund transfers will serve it well in China. The Airwallex platform covers over 150 nations, handling US$50 billion in transactions annually, so it has considerable reach and scale. "To better address the pain points encountered in cross-border transactions between China and the rest of the world, our team will work towards integrating our platform," Kai Wu, chief revenue officer and general manager of APAC at Airwallex, said in a statement.