Once upon a time, super apps began as e-commerce platforms or free messaging services. They tapped the network effect to build giant user bases. Because their overhead was low, they could afford to be patient about monetization. Transportation companies do not have the same luxury, especially airlines reeling from the pandemic's effect on air travel. Yet Malaysia-based AirAsia is doubling down on its super app strategy first announced last year. In March, AirAsia will expand its food delivery service airasia food from Malaysia to Singapore.
Since the advent of the internet, technology startups have disrupted one industry after another. It was only a matter of time before they set their sights on financial services.
As it turns out, banking is harder to disrupt than retail, transportation, entertainment or almost anything else. The reason is simple: Trust is paramount in banking and takes time to build, while most digital banks have yet to develop compelling value propositions.
A few of Asia's platform companies have defied this conventional wisdom. The most notable is WeChat, the Tencent-owned app that bundles messaging, digibanking, e-commerce and entertainment under the same umbrella. WeChat was not the first platform company to thrive as a fintech - Alipay was - but it was the first to harness messaging's network effect for that purpose.
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.
P2P lending is one of the fastest growing fintech segments in Indonesia. Demand for credit in Southeast Asia's largest economy is strong while its availability to most Indonesians through the traditional banking system is limited. Indonesia has tens of millions of people who are either underbanked or unbanked. Either way, they cannot easily get a bank loan. P2P platforms offer a convenient alternative. As of October 2020, Indonesia's online lenders had disbursed Rp 56.16 trillion in new loans, up 24% year-on-year, while the NPL ratio was 7.58%, according to data compiled by the country's Financial Services Authority.
Two years ago, Hong Kong made fintech history in Asia as the region's first major economy to greenlight digital banks. As of the end of 2020, all eight of the banks were finally live. Political and covid-related disruptions had delayed their launch. Judging by the digibanks' marketing literature, they are poised to redefine banking in Hong Kong as we know it. The reality is more nuanced.
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.
Fintech crackdowns in China tend to snowball. That was the lesson learned when Beijing began culling crypto and P2P lending firms. At first, it seemed those industry segments might survive if they could assuage regulators. It later became clear that the only way to satisfy regulators was to shut down or move into another line of business, as erstwhile P2P juggernaut Lufax did. China's fintech giants, once seemingly unassailable, now face their own day of reckoning with regulators. Ant Group and its counterparts are probably too big to fail. But they are not too big to be cut down to size.
Barely a month after Xinja's abrupt demise, another Australian neobank is exiting the market. This time though, the said bank is being bought out, not folding like an accordion. It would seem that National Australia Bank (NAB) made 86 400 an offer the neobank could not refuse to the tune of AU$220 million. Shareholders cannot complain. Australia's third-largest lender had already purchased an 18.3% stake during 86 400's Series B fundraising round and says it is paying a premium to the price investors had paid when they invested in the neobank.
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.
Taiwan finally has an operational digital bank. Rakuten International Commercial Bank (RICB), backed by the Japanese e-commerce giant, recently became the first of three digibanks approved by Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) to go live. RICB will initially offer deposits, fund transfer, small loan and debit card services and later expand into mortgages and corporate loans. Rakuten has had an internet bank in Japan (Rakuten Bank) for more than a decade.
Digital banking is a perilous pursuit. Just look at Xinja's sudden collapse or Monzo teetering on the brink. But that has not stopped cash-flush platform companies from trying to ride the digibanking wave to a blockbuster exit. So far, the results are mixed. One of the success stories is Korea's Kakao Bank, which borrowed a page out of WeChat's book and turned a ubiquitous messaging app into a money-making digibank. Kakao Bank is everything most digital banks are not: focused, profitable, and probably sustainable.
Platform companies counting on digibanking to lift their fortunes now routinely refer to themselves as "super apps" in the vein of China's WeChat. The two most prominent of them are Grab and Gojek, Southeast Asia's two most valuable startups. But being super and profitable are not one and the same. Under pressure from investors to reduce their cash burn and produce a viable exit strategy, both companies have sought a game-changing merger that could help them establish market dominance in digital banking. The M&A activity is accelerating pace as Grab and Gojek lose ground to Sea Group in Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy.
Rumors of an impending Grab-Gojek merger are looking more like smoke and mirrors by the day. After all, combine two similar questionable business models and and what do you get? Here is what you do not get: a company capable of slowing Sea Group's momentum in Indonesia. With gaming and e-commerce in the same ecosystem, Sea has stickiness that Gojek and Grab lack. With that in mind, perhaps Gojek could merge with a company able to complement its core services of ride hailing, food delivery and payments. One possibility is Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia.
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.
China has a fast growing money-laundering problem. Beijing issued a record RMB 628 million (US$97 million) in fines for money laundering violations in 2020, up nearly 300% over a year earlier, according to a new report by PriceWaterHouseCoopers. Since payment firms accounted for 42% of all fines issued, it is no surprise that Chinese regulators are enhancing oversight of fintechs.