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.
Grab is going all in on digital banking. In the period of less than a month, Southeast Asia's most valuable unicorn has won a Singapore digital bank license and raised US$300 million in a funding round led by South Korea's Hanhwa Asset Management. That was the first external funding for its fintech arm. Other participating investors included long-time Grab backers GGV Capital and K3 Ventures as well as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's Flourish Ventures.
Malaysia's digital banking race will be the one to watch now that Singapore's has finally ended. On January 1, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) formally invited applications for digital banking licenses. The deadline for submission will be June 30 and BNM will announce up to five winners by the first quarter of 2022. Compared to Singapore's, this should be more of a wide open race. Fewer tech giants will be in the running, although Grab will likely throw its hat into the ring.
The Philippines must act swiftly to implement tougher anti-money laundering (AML) legislation or it will likely be placed on the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) gray list alongside failed states such as Syria, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Countries on the gray list, which is updated annually in February, are identified as having strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering /counterterrorism financing (CFT) regime that pose a risk to the global financial system. Enhanced compliance procedures required for transactions with financial institutions located in gray-list countries could make it harder for the Philippines' many migrant workers to remit money home and reduce the country's attractiveness to investors.
To delist or not to delist: That is the question. The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) could not seem to make up its mind earlier this month, delisting three Chinese state-owned telecoms stocks (China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom Hong Kong), reversing course, and then finally deciding that the three firms should be delisted after all. The professed reason for kicking the companies off the NYSE is they have ties Chinese military and threaten America's national security. The impact on their market capitalization will likely be limited as their trading volume is much higher in Hong Kong than New York. More forced delistings of Chinese firms could occur in the waning days of the Trump administration though.
WhatsApp has something most other would-be super apps do not: the stickiness of an immensely popular messaging service. And unlike China's WeChat, WhatsApp is a global phenomenon, with large user bases in a diverse array of countries: India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and the United States to name a few. Having eschewed advertising, WhatsApp hopes to monetize all those users with digibanking and e-commerce services. If WhatsApp becomes a global one-stop shop for communication, shopping and banking it will be the only app of its kind.
Not so long ago, Ant Group looked set to build a digital finance empire in Asia. Ant has a foothold, in one form or another, in every major Asian economy. The company has invested in e-wallets across Southeast Asia. It operates fledgling digital banks in Hong Kong and Singapore, the region's two key financial hubs. It is a major backer of India's largest fintech unicorn, Paytm. Ant even has fintech investments in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Yet in retrospect Ant may have overextended itself internationally, confident that its ascent was insuperable even as regulatory problems mounted at home.
December was an eventful month for Australia's neobanks. Xinja's demise made waves, showing that it does not pay to keep building atop a flimsy foundation. Castles in the air must come down. And yet, some Aussie neobanks are thriving. Shortly after Xinja said it would turn in its banking license, Australian Financial Review reported that Judo Bank was set to raise up to AU$200 million from investors, bringing its valuation to AU$1.65 billion.
Afterpay has to be feeling pretty good heading into 2021. It has become one of the largest buy now, pay later (BNPL) firms in the world and is growing fast just as the sector hits its stride. BNPL is not a new idea, but Afterpay has repackaged it neatly: four interest-free installments with no fees at all for customers as long as they pay on time. Retailers are willing to take on the risk of late or missed payments because Afterpay is bringing in more business for them. The company's sales grew 112% year-on-year in November to a record US$2.1 billion. Its share prices have risen roughly 270% to A$113.29 from A$30.63 when the year began.
The Grab-Gojek rivalry is fast becoming the stuff of legend. Barring a merger, those two Southeast Asian decacorns are determined to one-up each other for evermore. The rivalry began with ride hailing and food delivery and has intensified in the fintech sector, the best hope for both firms to reach profitability and provide their deep-pocketed investors with an attractive exit. Following Grab leading a US$100 million funding round in Indonesian e-wallet LinkAja, Gojek spent US$160 million to increase its stake in PT Bank Jago to 22% from 4%. It is Gojek's largest investment yet in financial services.
Taiwan has had no shortage of opportunities to become a regional financial center. Most recently, Hong Kong's business environment declined markedly, prompting calls in Taipei to attract financial business from the former British colony. That will not happen though. Taiwan's regulatory environment is too restrictive. The business that leaves Hong Kong will instead go to Singapore and Tokyo.
In the twilight of 2020, warnings about shaky neobank business models often fall on deaf ears. For most neobanks and their investors, the prevailing business model remains growth first, ask questions later. Perhaps the abrupt collapse of Xinja, an erstwhile high-flying Australian neobank, will give others in the sector pause about their approach. Like most of its peers, Xinja telegraphed extreme confidence about its prospects. Right up until the end, Xinja was cool as a cucumber, assuring the public that a huge investment from Dubai-based investors was on the way. As it turns out, the cash is missing in action. And it is quite a sum.