It increasingly appears that India’s fintech unicorn Paytm has a way forward from the regulatory pressure it is facing, but the company will have to part ways with its payments bank and restructure accordingly. To that end, India's Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) on March 1 imposed a penalty of 54.9 million rupees (US$662,565) on Paytm Payments Bank for violations in reporting illegal money routed through its accounts. Given that Paytm overall has a market capitalization of almost US$3.3 billion, the fine itself is manageable, but the loss of its payments bank will require that the company rejig its operations to remain competitive.
Both Razorpay and Paytm are Indian fintech unicorns that have at different times struggled with mercurial regulators, but that’s about where the similarities end. Razorpay has focused only on the B2B segment, while Paytm has tried to gain a foothold in both retail and non-retail payments. While both companies have relied heavily on venture capital investment, Razorpay has very little, if any exposure, to China in this regard, while Ant Group’s stake in Paytm is coming under increasing scrutiny. With Paytm’s payments bank in mortal danger and Razorpay preparing to move its domicile from the U.S. to India while planning an IPO, the two fintech unicorns are both at inflection points. However, just one of them is ascendant.
The Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) harsh crackdown on Paytm has shaken up the subcontinent’s fintech sector. If Paytm were to lose its payments bank due to the RBI’s directives, not only would the future of India’s largest fintech look more uncertain, there also could be unpredictable knock-on effects that reverberated throughout the industry. While the RBI’s move initially appeared to be abrupt, recent media reports suggest that the regulator had issued multiple warnings to the company over dealings between its payments bank and its payments app over the past two years that were not heeded.
Long a cornerstone of the business of Indian fintech giant Paytm, the company’s payments bank may have entered its twilight. While the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has previously barred the payments bank from onboarding new customers, this new directive issued on January 31 is more comprehensive and foreboding. It appears the payments bank will no longer be operational after February 29, with just a few exceptions. India's central bank said it took the action due to "persistent non-compliances and continued material supervisory concerns in the bank” – which it did not specify.
India’s most prominent fintech unicorn has steadily improved its financials in recent years in a push to reach profitability sooner rather than later. In the October to December period, Paytm posted an operating profit – which the company defines as core profit before cost of employee stock options – for the fifth consecutive quarter. The figure was 2.19 billion rupees, a significant improvement over 310 million rupees during the same period a year earlier. Consolidated revenue, meanwhile, increased 38% to 28.5 billion rupees, with its payments business contributing 61% to the total. Despite these solid numbers, the company could face some headwinds in the months ahead.
We recently wrote about how Google Pay has defied the odds in India, a crucial fintech market where both American tech and credit card giants have struggled to carve out a niche. The Google Pay app continues to hold a roughly 35% market share of the paramount homegrown payments rail United Payments Interface (UPI) in India, while WhatsApp Pay and Amazon Pay each have less than 1% and PayPal is absent altogether.
One of the most promising segments of digital financial services in India is remittances. Unlike traditional banking, it is not completely dominated by incumbents, and the massive Indian diaspora population ensures that demand will be robust for years to come. 2023 was another big year for Indian remittances – though not as big as 2022.
After a long moment in the sun, buy now, pay later (BNPL) has lost some of its luster. That’s not to say it will fade away. Far from it. In fact, many deep-pocketed fintechs and prominent incumbents in advanced economies have introduced the service because consumers like interest-free installment payments. However, pure-play BNPL firms that are essentially one-trick, loss-making ponies are in varying degrees of trouble. In the case of India’s ZestMoney, once a high flyer in the subcontinent’s erstwhile red-hot BNPL segment, the trouble seems to be terminal – and the company will reportedly throw in the towel at the end of this month.
Ant Group has an ambitious international expansion strategy with Asia Pacific at its core. However, one of the largest markets in the region is increasingly not part of Ant’s vision. Suffice to say that when Ant was ramping up expansion in Asia a few years ago, it did not foresee geopolitical tensions with India impacting its investments in the subcontinent, a market the Chinese tech giant once saw as very promising. But the business environment for Chinese companies in India is likely to remain highly challenging for the foreseeable future.
We have been writing for a while now about the potential for credit cards to capture market share in India, irrespective of the trajectory of buy, now pay later (BNPL) and e-wallets. In a nutshell, there is nothing quite like a credit card when it comes to cashless payments: the potential for rewards, the potentially significant credit limit, and in some cases, the prestige of holding a specific card. And then there is the bonus that paying off the balance promptly helps one build a solid credit profile over time. Even though India’s credit card penetration is estimated at just 5.5%, in absolute terms, that’s still about 77 million people because the subcontinent’s population is 1.4 billion. So even at that low level of penetration, India has a larger credit card market than all of France or the UK.
After years of losing money, Paytm has turned things around in the past two years. A disappointing IPO on the eve of a long-overdue slowdown in inflated tech stocks and valuations was a wake-up call for the company to focus on profitability instead of growth in myriad verticals. In the June quarter, India’s most prominent fintech showed some promising signs, especially in terms of loan growth, but it also faces rising competition and lacks a banking license that would allow it to lend directly to customers.
This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle.
India’s United Payments Interface (UPI) real-time payments system has transformed how Indians make payments, allowing them to easily transfer money instantly from one bank account to another: from a customer to a business, or between individuals. Since its 2016 launch, UPI has amassed 300 million users and 500 million merchants in a population of 1.4 billion and been a decisive factor in India’s embrace of cashless payments given its ease of use and interoperability.
There is usually good reason to be skeptical these days about a loss-making fintech with a sky-high valuation, but India’s PhonePe – valued at US$12 billion – could be an exception to the rule. The company has fought its way to the top of the subcontinent’s massive UPI payments rail, edging out Google Pay and Paytm, is gradually building out a comprehensive digital financial services ecosystem and continues to raise eyewatering sums from investors at a time when the easy money no longer flows.