Roughly a year ago, Hong Kong looked set to take a leading position in Asia's nascent digital banking space. In late March 2019, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) awarded three digital banking licenses. It later issued five additional licenses. The eight neobanks, which include consortia led by Chinese tech giants Ant Financial, Tencent and Xiaomi, were reportedly set to begin operations in the second half of 2019.
Then came the Hong Kong protests. The political turmoil that erupted in June 2019 has shaken confidence in Hong Kong's once unassailable position as the region's top global financial center. Amidst the economic fallout, Hong Kong has slipped into recession for the first time since the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Given unenviable economic conditions, all but one of Hong Kong's digital banks have postponed their launch.
Singapore has 21 applicants for just five digital banking licenses. There are going to be many more losers than winners in this race. Speculation about the likely winners is reaching a feverish pitch ahead of the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) expected announcement of the winners. The decision is expected by June.
MAS has made clear that it has little interest in large-scale disruption of the financial-services sector. The regulator certainly wants to boost competition and the quality of digital-banking services in the city-state, but in a steady, incremental manner. Evolution is necessary. Revolution is not. With that in mind, the MAS designed the application process to ensure that only firms with ample capitalization and strong potential for profitability would meet the licensing criterion.
China has demonstrated a willingness to innovate in the financial services technology sector. For example, the Chinese government has announced accelerated plans for a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), the People's Bank of China (PBOC) has filed scores of CBDC patents and fintech initiatives like Baidu’s Xuperchain network have been introduced to great fanfare. What's more, the PBOC's Fintech Development Plan (2019 – 2021) expresses support for technological innovation, including the use of public cloud.
However, the Chinese government is also traditionally cautious in regard to security and control. Thus, financial services companies in China who are contemplating the migration of critical business applications to the cloud would be well-advised to plan carefully. To that end, Chinese regulators have reportedly engaged in private conversations with information security representatives from several foreign banks, advising them that critical hosting engagements in the cloud will need to be handled exclusively by specialised "Financial Community Cloud" providers who have been certified by the government.
China's fintech giants have been quietly expanding in emerging markets that are participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to deepen Beijing's economic ties with the world. South Asia has become a geographic area of focus for Ant Financial's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Pay. Aside from India, major South Asian nations have few domestic digital payments options, and limited foreign fintech investment. They offer Alipay and WeChat Pay a chance to gain a first mover's advantage.
That's why WeChat Pay has been determined to enter Nepal. Of course, Chinese tourists do visit Nepal, which is known for its resplendent scenery, but in the long run that market is not as crucial as local consumers and small businesses. In early February, Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) approved WeChat Pay to operate in the South Asian country.
Some analysts are adamant that Singapore needs digital banks to boost financial inclusion. That's an interesting argument, given that 98% of Singaporeans over 25 have a bank account, according to research by Allianz Global Wealth. By Allianz's estimates, globally only Israel has a higher rate of financial inclusion than the Lion City.
In Singapore's case, this type of hard data is more instructive than a nebulous concept such as being "underbanked." A report published in October 2019 by Bain & Co., Google and Temaek Holdings found that 4 in 10 Singaporeans were underbanked, implying they don't have access to all the essential financial services they need. The findings might be more convincing if the same report had not also found that 40% of Thais and 45% of Malaysians were underbanked. The latter two countries are middle income, with per-capita GDP levels far below Singapore's.
The Trump administration has not shown much enthusiasm for a sovereign digital currency so far. With China's advances in the area, however, Washington's stance could be set to change. In early February, a member of the United States Federal Reserve Bank board of governors said the Fed is researching and experimenting with distributed ledger technologies and their virtual-currency applications. Among the applications being explored is a central bank digital currency (CBDC).
Lael Brainard, who chairs multiple Fed committees, made the remarks at a speech during an event on payments held at Stanford University. Brainard noted that 80% of central banks globally are researching CBDCs. However, she stopped well short of endorsing a full-throated campaign to create a digital dollar, devoting considerable attention to the challenges and risks posed by digital fiat currencies.
Reform is coming to China's US$27 trillion payments market belatedly. Very belatedly. U.S. credit-card giants have been trying to crack the market for years, to no avail. The market should have been open to them by 2006, per China's WTO commitments. But Beijing has hesitated to open its financial industry to foreign investment. It is finally signaling greater openness amidst the toughest business conditions China has faced in decades, perhaps since the beginning of economic reforms in 1978.
In mid-February, Mastercard announced it had received approval from the People's Bank of China (PBOC) to formally establish a bank-card clearing business in China. The green light for Mastercard comes three weeks after Beijing and Washington signed a phase-one trade deal to ease tensions in their strained economic relationship. American Express has also recently been granted approval to set up a bank-card clearing business in China. Both Mastercard and Amex are working with local Chinese partners in joint ventures.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) announced on 28 January of the enforcement of a new Payment Services Act, the first comprehensive legislation of its kind that regulates distinct activities in payment services ranging from digital payments to the trading of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin and Ether.
The Payment Services Act comes at a well-coordinated time before the MAS awards a total of five digital bank licenses to a select few of its 21 reported applicants. While that may be the case, some have begun to speculate on the effects and ramifications the Act will have on fintechs that are hoping to or have already begun operations in Singapore.
The Vietnam fintech market was Southeast Asia's hottest in 2019 after Singapore, an impressive feat given that the Lion City is a hub for the entire region. From Jan. to Sept. 2019, Vietnam accounted for 36% of Southeast Asia's venture-capital fintech investment compared to 51% for Singapore, according to a December report from the United Overseas Bank (UOB), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Singapore Fintech Association (SFA). Vietnam was far ahead of other Asean economies, including Indonesia (12%) as well as the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia (2% each).
Vietnam's Banking Strategy Institute reckons that the nation's fintech market will reach US$9 billion in value this year, which will make it the region's fourth largest. Fast growth in the fintech sector and the potential for the industry to boost financial inclusion probably explain why Hanoi nixed a plan to cap foreign ownership in payment service intermediaries at 49%, which was proposed by the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) in November.
Australian neobanks are tapping strong demand for digital banking services to swiftly build up their deposit bases. Among the virtual banks reporting expeditious deposit growth are Xinja, Up!, Judo, 86 400 and Volt Bank. Xinja's growth has been especially impressive: It reports amassing $115 million in deposits in just 20 days. That would put Xinja on track to reach its goal of $120 million in deposits for the year by the end of February.
Tencent is stepping up its fintech investments outside of China, where it and Alibaba's fintech arm Ant Financial effectively have a market duopoly. One approach for Tencent is direct expansion - the launch of WeChat Pay in international markets. That's a good idea in any country frequented by Chinese tourists or business travelers.
But direct expansion only goes so far, especially in developed economies. Tencent doesn't expect consumers in Europe or the United States will opt for WeChat Pay instead of Apple Pay, Google Pay, or apps created by local banks and fintechs. Instead, the Shenzhen-based company is taking strategic stakes in ascendant startups, including French mobile payment app Lydia and challenger bank Qonto. These investments will give Tencent a chance to grow its fintech business in Europe through local rising stars.
Singapore has never been as large a financial center as Hong Kong. In every major traditional area of finance, Hong Kong has an edge. That is not the case in fintech, where Singapore's Asean location is a boon. The world's preeminent tech giants and venture capitalists have all descended on Southeast Asia, where the underbanked are legion, regulators are keen to boost financial inclusion, and consumers are digitally adroit. Singapore is ideally positioned to take advantage of this opportunity.
Japan is one of the few major economies in Asia with a strong preference for cash. About 80% of transactions in Japan are cash, compared to 40% in China and 11% in South Korea.
The fintech arms of Chinese internet giants Alibaba and Tencent have fought each other to a standstill in their home market. Together, Ant Financial (through its e-wallet Alipay) and WeChat Pay each hold about 90% of China's US$25 trillion mobile payments market, each with roughly an equal share. The duopoly looks stable for now.
Much like its anti-corruption campaign, China's crypto crackdown is relentless. Beijing views decentralized digital currency as a conduit for money laundering and capital flight. In contrast, Beijing sees crypto's underlying blockchain technology as useful. Blockchain can help China boost its tech prowess, improve supply-chain integrity and surmount bottlenecks across many industries, particularly financial services.