|June 08, 2023|
Panel - Programmable Money & the Future of Cross-border Payments
|June 27, 2023|
Seamless Asia 2023
|August 28, 2023|
Fintech Connect Leaders Summit 2023
Japan is a well-established laggard when it comes to cashless payments in East Asia. South Korea’s cashless payments ratio is an astonishing 94%; China’s is only a slightly less astonishing 83%; Singapore’s is 60% and Japan’s is much lower at 32.5%, according to data compiled by the Payments Japan Association and the Japan Consumer Credit Association. That said, Japan is still on target to reach its modest target of 40% cashless payments by 2025, and could gradually increase the ratio in the following years.
Better late than never? That was our first reaction to the news that at long last, Thailand has reached a decision on digital banks: It will allow them by 2025, and start accepting applications later this year. By 2024, Thailand will issue three digital banking licenses. And of course, online lenders will have to satisfy certain requirements, which we expect to be stringent and effectively eliminate any scrappy startups from even bothering to throw their hats in the ring.
Two years and 2.5 months after its IPO was shelved at the 11th hour, Ant Group appears to be nearly out of the woods. Ant has jumped through countless hoops for regulators over the past few years, from creating a dedicated consumer finance unit to raising its capitalization to agreeing to share consumer data with the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) to having Jack Ma give up control of the company – more on that later. So it is no surprise that with the Chinese economy faltering, battered by zero Covid and then the abrupt shift to living with the virus, that regulators are ready to put China’s tech crackdown in the rearview mirror.
When it comes to Singapore’s digital banks, is hindsight 20/20? Probably so. The hype surrounding them never quite corresponded to reality, and in many regards accurately mirrored the broader tech bubble that pushed up the valuations of so many cash-burning startups into the stratosphere. Like their counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore’s digital banks will need to spend a lot of time and money to effectively penetrate what is already a mature, well-served market.
Buy now, pay later (BNPL) is not new to Taiwan. Incumbent banks have offered the service for years through credit cards on certain e-commerce platforms. Instead of paying for a purchase in one go, the buyer chooses 3, 6, 9 or 12 months of interest-free installment payments. Because the banks already are authorized lenders, there is no regulatory problem. Yet in recent years, dedicated BNPL platforms have entered the Taiwan market and begun offering similar services – though they do not call them “lending” or “credit.” They will not be able to operate in this regulatory gray area much longer.
Is Europe the new New York for Chinese companies keen to raise capital overseas? Not exactly, as there is no exact replacement for the capital markets opportunities that the Nasdaq and NYSE once afforded Chinese firms. But given persistent tensions in the U.S.-China relationship, Chinese companies are opting for less liquid capital markets and less prestigious overseas listings – but without any of the geopolitical drama that has come to characterize their presence on U.S. exchanges. Switzerland’s SIX, meanwhile, is fast becoming the exchange of choice for Chinese companies wanting to raise capital outside of Greater China.
2022 was a year of mixed fortunes for China in many respects – but not in the case of its IPO market. Despite the trials and tribulations that the zero-Covid policy brought to China, listings on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges hit a new high. Nearly 400 firms are estimated to have gone public on China’s exchanges in 2022, raising a record RMB 560 billion (US$80.4 billion), an increase of 3% over 2021, according to PwC.
In the days before China’s tech crackdown humbled the country’s largest platform companies, Ant Group seemed intent on building its own cross-border payments ecosystem in Southeast Asia. The idea, though never explicitly stated, was to build a regional payments rail that could replicate at least some of the success of Alipay’s dominant domestic system.
U.S. payments giant Stripe has had its eye on the Asia-Pacific region for a long time, both mature markets like Japan and Australia, and emerging economies in Southeast Asia. It sees enormous potential in the region, despite the intense competition in the payments segments there. However, the global tech slump may force the company to slow the speed of its expansion as it works to cut costs. Earlier this year, Stripe’s US$95 billion valuation reportedly fell 28% after an internal recalculation. Then came the layoffs.
China embarked on a quest to internationalize its currency in the early 2010s with great fanfare. In support of renminbi internationalization, Beijing announced plans to develop Shanghai as a global financial center and established offshore yuan trading hubs in Hong Kong, Singapore and London.
These efforts represented a push by reform-minded officials to give China a greater role in international finance and activate needed changes to a financial system designed for a country less integrated with the global economy. They came about at a time when it was widely assumed that China’s leadership believed the advantages of a more open financial system outweighed the drawbacks, and that a free-floating renminbi and fully convertible capital account were not a question if, but when.
Among Hong Kong’s eight virtual banks, WeLab Bank stands out for a few reasons. First, it is not simply an offshoot of large tech firms and/or incumbent lenders like most of its competitors. WeLab is a startup that was established a decade ago as an online consumer credit lending platform. It has been operating in mainland China since 2014 and Southeast Asia since 2018. Though the mainland market is and will remain important for WeLab, its interest in Southeast Asia – Indonesia in particular – shows the company has a regional vision for its business that contrasts with that of its competitors focused only on Hong Kong and the mainland.
Cambodia has been on the gray list of the international financial crime watchdog FATF for several years due to its inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls. Gray list designation requires additional levels of compliance for international financial transactions with the kingdom, which while not a dealbreaker for foreign investment in Cambodia, makes it more troublesome than in countries not on the list. As Cambodia emerges from the pandemic, it is eager to be removed from the gray list to help boost its Covid-battered economy, which contracted 3.1% in 2020 and grew just 2.6% in 2021.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, digital banks have sprung up at a rapid rate in recent years. Regulators have ostensibly encouraged the establishment of online-only banks to spur greater competition in the banking sector, which in most markets is dominated by incumbent lenders afflicted with complacency of varying severity.
Historically, Chinese companies seeking to go public overseas have listed in the United States, home to the world’s most liquid capital markets. Nothing can quite compare with listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or Nasdaq. While that remains the case, the fraught U.S.-China relationship has caused Chinese firms to turn their focus to European stock exchanges, especially Switzerland’s SIX. In Europe, Chinese companies can mostly steer clear of geopolitical tensions while still being able to access global investors.
China’s fintech sector was never the same after November 3, 2020. That was the day Chinese regulators abruptly nixed Ant Group’s mega IPO, a dual Shanghai and Hong Kong listing that was expected to raise US$37 billion and value the Chinese fintech giant at a whopping US$315 billion. The cancellation of Ant’s IPO proved to be the beginning of an extended campaign to curb the dominance of Big Tech in China’s financial services industry.