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February 24, 2022
Digital Currency Conference
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In early October, Toss Bank finally went live in South Korea. The process took several years and hit a few bumps in the road. The country’s third digital lender had to reapply for a digital bank license after its initial application was rejected in May 2019. Regulators gave Toss preliminary approval in December 2019, but nearly two more years were required before it could launch. As it turns out, Toss is entering the market amid the first real fintech crackdown in South Korea, which has important implications for its growth trajectory.

The buy now, pay later (BNPL) craze is sweeping Asia Pacific, growing briskly in markets from Australia to Indonesia. Like many other segments of fintech, BNPL is present in Taiwan, but the situation is a bit different from elsewhere. Major online retailers in Taiwan have offered interest-free installment payments for years, but typically in cooperation with major banks, which are authorized lenders. Dedicated BNPL platforms are another story.

While a certain amount of hype surrounds digital banks, one thing about them is for sure: Their very presence intensifies competition in the market, drawing attention to incumbent complacency. Now that Malaysia’s central bank plans to issue five digital banking licenses in the first quarter of 2022, the country’s traditional banks are moving to head off the challenge – or at least prepare themselves well.

The digitization of life since the coronavirus pandemic began has made  life more convenient in many respects. However, there is a downside to all of the digital activity: Criminals are now more active online than ever, and Singapore is no exception. The city-state known for its low crime rate – extremely low when compared with other developed countries –  is a grappling with a surge in online crime, with loan and investment scams especially problematic.

Compared to many of its neighbors, Thailand has been digitizing its financial sector at a slower pace. Southeast Asia's second-largest economy has no digital banks – not even any framework for digital lenders – and until recently, no fintech unicorns. Ant Group-backed Ascend Money is Thailand’s first.

South Korea’s fintech crackdown has delayed Kakao Pay’s IPO and likely will force the company to do some restructuring to meet regulatory requirements. Kakao Pay’s parent company has also felt regulatory ire. Yet Kakao Bank, the digital bank unit of the platform company, has continued to perform well, as have its competitors K bank and Toss.

It was only a matter of time before buy, now pay later (BNPL) caught fire in India. All of the necessary elements are in place, from high internet connectivity and low credit card penetration to booming fintech investment and strong demand for alternative digital-first credit. A flurry of deals in recent months signify BNPL’s ascendancy on the subcontinent.

Given that Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy, the decisions it makes about digital banking will have a large effect on fintech development in the region. To date, Jakarta has moved cautiously, despite the pandemic-driven transition to online banking that has swept the region. There are signs, however, that Indonesian regulators are keen to get the ball rolling. They will take a somewhat different approach than their counterparts in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia though.

All good things come to an end, and sometimes the end is long and drawn out. Such is the state of the latest fintech crackdown in China, which has evolved into an all-out effort to reign in Big Tech/platform companies. The tightening of supervision over firms like Ant Group and Tencent represents a major escalation over prior regulatory campaigns, which focused on cryptocurrency and peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. This time, Beijing is keen to clip the wings of the firms that have come to dominate its once-booming fintech sector. Not all of them are equally affected though.

The delay of Kakao Pay’s US$1.3 billion IPO signifies a toughening regulatory landscape for the company and fintech overall in South Korea. For years, Kakao's fintech business in South Korea grew largely unfettered. Neither incumbents nor digital competitors – there were very few – posed a serious challenge to the firm, while regulators seemed content to take a relatively hands-off approach to its digital finance business. That’s all over now. What remains to be seen is whether this is a bump in the road or a harbinger of a rough ride to come.

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