Asia Financial Industry Blog

United Payments Interface (UPI), the National Payments Corporation of India’s (NPCI) flagship payments platform, had another stellar month in July. According to NPCI data, UPI processed a record 3.24 billion transactions in July, up 15.7% on month, while in terms of value the payments platform processed transactions worth Rs 6.06 trillion, up 10.76% from a month earlier.

Just when buy now, pay later (BNPL) had seemingly reached an apex in Australia, Jack Dorsey’s Square buys Afterpay for US$29 billion, the largest M&A deal in Australian history. Anyone who thought Afterpay would be easily surpassed by deep-pocketed global payments giants like PayPal or Australia’s own banking heavyweights will have to think again.

Indonesia is fast becoming the most hotly contested of Southeast Asia’s digital services markets. No other market is both as large and untapped. With that in mind, Singapore’s Sea Group and hometown favorite GoTo have made significant plays in recent months. The former acquired Bank BKE, while Gojek upped its stake in Bank Jago and then merged with Tokopedia. Not to be outdone, Grab is teaming up with Tokopedia's rival Bukalapak. This move finally brings e-commerce into the Singaporean decacorn's ecosystem and strengthens the hands of both Grab and Bukalapak as they prepare to go public. 

The crypto party may be over in South Korea, where the government is less than ecstatic about the widespread use of decentralized virtual currency in its economy. Unlike Japan, a crypto pioneer that has always been tolerant of decentralized digital currency, South Korea sees it as somewhere in between an annoyance and systemic financial risk. Seoul is now moving to curtail crypto’s influence in the country through strict regulation and higher taxation.

Big Tech increasly has its eyes on Asia-Pacific’s growing fintech market. Yet most of the US tech giants are off to a late start in the region. Although it has been present in numerous APAC markets for years, PayPal is not really an exception to the rule. The U.S. payments giant has historically focused on North America and to a lesser extent Europe, with only a minor footprint in APAC. That is changing now that PayPal has super app ambitions and sees new opportunities in China, Southeast Asia and Australia.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That seems to be true in just about every market that has introduced digital banks, and it is a two-way street. Hype about the challengers unseating incumbents tends to give way to a more nuanced reality in which there is some room for cooperation. In Australia, where four large banks have long dominated the market, the incumbents are steadily increasing their cooperation with fintechs in a bid to strengthen their digital offerings.

Chinese companies raised more than US$12 billion in U.S. markets in the first half of 2021, a half-year record, according to Dealogic. The great U.S.-China financial decoupling had seemingly hit a snag. Then came Didi Chuxing's catastrophic debut on the NYSE, and just like that, the U.S. IPO pipeline for Chinese firms froze. But the companies have to list somewhere offshore and Hong Kong will likely step in to fill the void.

Indonesia’s tech juggernauts are coming into their own this year. First Gojek and Tokopedia merged to create GoTo, which plans to list in both the U.S. and Indonesia. Now Tokopedia’s rival Bukalapak has announced its own plans to go public on the Indonesia Stock Exchange in what looks to be the archipelago nation’s largest ever IPO. Bukalapak recently said that it would increase its IPO size to US$1.5 billion.

Australia’s Afterpay is making the jump from payments into banking as it seeks to develop new revenue streams amid intensifying competition in its core buy now, pay later (BNPL) business. Afterpay said on July 20 that it would launch its banking app, Afterpay Money, in October. The move into banking has a hint of irony to it, coming on the heels of the recent entry of several incumbent banking giants - such as Citibank and Commonwealth Wealth Bank of Australia – into Australia’s BNPL segment. Afterpay is the only BNPL firm besides Klarna to segue into banking.

2021 will likely be remembered as the year that Asia’s fintech unicorns (ex-China) cashed out. India’s Paytm has become the latest high-flying fintech to cement its plans to go public, filing a draft prospectus with the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) for a deal expected to raise US$2.2 billion. The deal will be one of India’s largest of all time, including a fresh issue of US$1.1 billion and a secondary issue or offer for sale of the same size.

Big Tech may have reached an apex in the United States and China, but in South Korea it is ascendant. In a country where chaebols have long been dominant, it is not hard to imagine internet companies – and indeed fintechs in particular – taking a similar path. And that is exactly what is happening. First, Kakao became a fintech giant, and now it is Viva Republica’s turn. The company, which operates Toss, the largest fintech app in South Korea, recently raised US$410 million at a valuation of US$7.4 billion.

If there ever was a “We are all fintechs now” moment, it must have been earlier this year when Indonesia’s online travel unicorn Traveloka stepped up its rebranding as a digital financial services provider. Skeptics could have been forgiven for rolling their eyes. Yes, the pandemic has hit the travel industry hard and companies like Traveloka need to rejig themselves or they may not survive. On the other hand, not every platform company is suited to reinvent itself as a fintech.

Sea Group is one of the most successful loss-making companies in the world outside of private markets. Sea lost an astronomical amount of money in the first quarter of the year: US$422 million. That is not normally cause for celebration among listed companies, but its revenue also grew 147% year-on-year to US$1.76 billion. Investors are cheering: Sea’s stock price has risen more than 300% to US$283 over roughly the past year. Helping to drive that bullish investor sentiment are expectations about Sea’s potential in Southeast Asia’s nascent but fast-growing digital finance space.

Many of the world’s preeminent platform companies have tried to reinvent themselves as fintechs. Outside of China, South Korea’s Kakao is the only one that is an undisputed success. Kakao boasts South Korea’s largest e-wallet, with 36 million users, and leading digital bank. Both will go public in Korea in August and are likely to raise US$1.4 billion and US$2.3 billion respectively. The speed of Kakao Bank’s swing to profitability (it took just two years) – paving the way for the IPO just four years after its founding – has been remarkable by industry standards.

Just about every major tech company now wants to be a fintech, super app or both. What makes AirAsia different is that its core service has nothing to do with the internet or banking. Indeed, AirAsia is an airline that happens to have a digital services arm. The Malaysia-based firm probably would have stayed that way had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating effect on airlines and the travel industry. AirAsia is now going all in on its super app gambit, applying for a digital banking license in Malaysia and acquiring Gojek’s Thailand business.

In both Singapore and Hong Kong, digital banks are nice to have. In Malaysia, whose digital banking application period ended on June 30, the need for digibanks is somewhat greater. But in the Philippines, where 71 million adults remain unbanked and 1/3 of municipalities lack a banking presence, the need for neobanks is more pressing. With that in mind, the Philippines’ central bank is approving digital banks’ applications on a rolling basis in the hope of reaching key financial inclusion targets by 2023. Tencent-backed Voyager Innovations and RCBC are the two most recent entrants to the country’s digital banking race.

Two IPOs are better than one, as far as Kakao is concerned. The banking and payments arms of Korea’s super app are both preparing to go public in Korea in August. Kakao Pay, South Korea’s largest payments provider, which has 36 million users and is backed by Ant Group, plans to raise up to 1.6 trillion won ($1.4 billion). Kakao Bank, South Korea’s largest online lender, could raise up to 2.55 trillion won.

Hong Kong may be attracting the lion’s share of offshore listings by Chinese companies, but New York is no slouch. In fact, for all the talk of U.S.-China decoupling, the world’s most liquid capital markets retain significant appeal for Chinese companies. According to Dealogic, 36 Chinese companies had raised US$12.59 billion in U.S. markets as of June 30, a half-year record. 

June 30 was the deadline for Malaysia’s digital bank licenses and there were 29 applicants for a maximum of five licenses from a wide variety of would-be neobanks, among them platform companies, incumbent lenders, conglomerates, state governments, fintechs and more. The Malaysian central bank will name the winners of the licenses in early 2022.

The digital banking proposition in Singapore has always been a bit curious. A central tenet of the case for digital banks in the city-state is that, well, Hong Kong has them, and besides, digital lenders can boost financial inclusion – as long as the definition of financial inclusion is broad. 98% of Singaporeans aged 25 and above have a bank account according to Allianz Global Wealth , so when we talk about financial inclusion in Singapore, we are not talking about the same thing as in Indonesia (34% of adults have a bank account) or the Philippines (29% of adults are banked).

China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 1/3 of the global total. Beijing is well aware of the effect its emissions have on climate change and has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, with emissions peaking in 2030. As part of its emissions reduction plan, China is introducing more eco-friendly practices in the financial services sector, but there is a steep learning curve.

Australia’s Big Four banks have had their fair share of compliance travails in recent years. That much was made clear in the report produced by The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. Since the report was published in 2019, Westpac and Commonwealth Bank of Australia have borne the brunt of fines issued for money-laundering violations. However, National Australia Bank (NAB) is now the one in AUSTRAC’s crosshairs.

Earlier this year, it was unclear if peer-to-peer (P2P) lending had a future in South Korea. Legislation passed in August 2020 to curb malfeasance in the industry had made it harder to operate legally. This legislation banned P2P lenders from lending money they borrow from commercial banks and required they have paid-in capital of at least 500 million won (US$440 million) and register with the Financial Services Commission (FSC) within a year. The regulator’s decision to license several prominent P2P lenders signals that the industry has a way forward in South Korea.

In their first year of operation, Hong Kong’s virtual banks all lost money. Ant Bank lost the least at HK$172 million while Standard Chartered-backed Mox Bank lost the most at HK$456 million, according to the banks’ respective annual reports. While it is still early days for Hong Kong’s digital lenders, it appears a few of them are pulling ahead of the pack.

India’s remittances market was supposed to contract 9% in 2020 per a World Bank forecast. It was a reasonable prediction given the turmoil wrought by the coronavirus pandemic on public health and the global economy. Yet the market was much more resilient than expected. Data from the World Bank show that remittances to India fell just 0.2% in 2020 to US$83 billion.

For digital banks, the Philippines is among the most promising markets in Southeast Asia because of its large overall size (population 110 million) and significant unbanked population. About 71% of adults in the Philippines people lack a bank account, but more than 2/3 of the population has a smartphone. Thus far, the BSP has issued three of the five digital bank licenses up for grabs. In April, Overseas Filipino Bank (OF Bank), a subsidiary of government-owned Land Bank of the Philippines, received one. In June, the BSP awarded two more digital banking licenses, one to Tonik and one to UNObank.

Bitcoin mining was one of the last vestiges of China’s experimentation with decentralized virtual currency. Until recently, China was the world’s bitcoin mining center. For the crypto faithful (and the agnostics who profited from mining), it was great while it lasted. But now regulators have decided mining in China should go the way of trading. Several weeks ago Kapronasia wrote that the crackdown was just warming up. Sure enough, provincial authorities are turning up the heat. What began in Inner Mongolia – it shut down 35 mining firms between January and April – has spread to Xinjiang, Qinghai and Yunnan.

Perhaps there was nowhere for Hong Kong’s IPO market to go but down. From January-March, fundraising hit an all-time high of US$13.9 billion while Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) posted a record profit of HK$3.8 billion (US$490 million), up 70% year-on-year. At that point, China’s fintech crackdown, which has widened to target tech giants in general, had yet to impact market sentiment.

Indonesia’s peer-to-peer (P2P) lending sector is growing steadily after a pandemic-induced slowdown in 2020. Regulators, mindful of the sector’s ability to boost financial inclusion but wary of the risks that can build up when oversight is too light, have been gradually issuing licenses to legitimate companies while penalizing bad actors.

It has been an eventful seven months for Ant Group, with more downs than ups. Ever since the suspension of its anticipated blockbuster IPO in November 2020, the fintech giant has been trying to satisfy a long list of regulatory demands to restructure its operations. Regulators have been especially concerned with what they perceive as a highly risky (and previously, lucrative) consumer lending business. With that in mind, Ant gaining approval to operate its new consumer lending unit Chongqing Ant Consumer Finance within six months is an important step in the right direction.

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