Asia Financial Industry Blog

The United Payments Interface (UPI) has become a kingmaker in India fintech. The real-time payment system owned by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) has grown exponentially since its inception in 2016, with varying estimates of its overall share of India’s payments market. PwC reckons that UPI could reach a 59% share of Indian digital payments by 2024-25, while Indian tech media site Inc42 says that UPI already has a 73% share of the market, up from just 9% in 2018.

South Korea only has a handful of prominent fintechs, but they are still managing to give incumbents a bank a run for their money when it comes to online banking services. Chief among them is Kakao Bank, with 14.1 million users (more than ¼ of South Korea’s population) as well as K bank and Viva Republica’s Toss, which will launch a digital bank later this year. With the rising popularity of digital banking, South Korea’s traditional lenders are mulling launching neobanks of their own.

China’s fintech crackdown is hurting some of the country’s largest tech firms, but has yet to dampen investor appetite for Chinese tech listings in Hong Kong. In fact, Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) posted a record profit of HK$3.8 billion (US$490 million) in the January-March period, up 70% year-on-year. Driving the boom were listings by Chinese tech firms of various stripes, including video-streaming platform Kuaishou (which raised US$5 billion) as well as secondary listings by search giant Baidu and video-sharing platform Bilibili. The first quarter is normally the slowest for Hong Kong IPOs as it coincides with the Lunar New Year holiday. 

2021 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for DBS. Southeast Asia’s largest bank posted record earnings of US$1.52 billion in the January-March period, up 72% year-on-year. DBS generated record fee income in the first quarter, with especially strong growth in wealth management and transaction services, both of which hit new highs. DBS is not resting on its laurels though and plans to boost both its digital capabilities and international footprint.

Singapore and Thailand have made cross-border payments history with the linkage of their respective real-time retail payment systems, PayNow and PromptPay. The linkage is the first of its kind in not just Asia but the world and comes after several years of close collaboration between the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and Bank of Thailand (BoT).

Ride-hailing giant Grab is full of surprises these days. It was not so long ago that the Singaporean decacorn was said to be considering a tie-up with its rival Gojek. Gojek instead is moving to merge with e-commerce giant Tokopedia while Grab is taking the SPAC merger road to an exit. The forthcoming Nasdaq SPAC could value Grab at up to US$40 billion, but it is not the only listing the company is considering. Indeed, Grab is also considering a secondary listing on the Singapore Exchange (SGX).

Indian payments unicorn Razorpay has grown exponentially during the pandemic as the subcontinent accelerates its transition to online shopping and digital finance. In the six months since it hit unicorn status, Razorpay has seen its valuation treble to US$3 billion. The Bangalore-based firm will use the US$160 million it raised in its latest fundraising round – in which Sequoia Capital India and Singapore’s sovereign fund GIC Pte participated – to fund expansion in Southeast Asia and develop new product lines. With this latest round of funding, Razorpay has raised US$366.5 million.

Citibank is calling it quits in many of Asia-Pacific’s retail banking markets, including mainland China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia. Citi’s performance across these markets varies greatly, but overall, the US banking giant feels it lacks the scale to compete in them. Citi plans to focus its Asian retail banking business in the financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore.

It has not been the best six months for Ant Group. The erstwhile high-flying fintech giant landed squarely in regulatory crosshairs on the eve of its abortive IPO and has been there ever since. Initial optimism that the company could expeditiously get its regulatory house in order have been dashed as Beijing’s demands increase. Not only must Ant vastly increase its capitalization, which will eat deep into its profit margins, the company must also restructure and hand over its precious user data to a state-run firm. Ant's valuation could fall as low as US$29 billion, a far cry from the US$315 billion price tag that the company had around the time of its abortive IPO. These changes will have a profound impact on Ant’s future prospects and likely other major fintechs in its ecosystem as well. 

Buy now, pay later may be the greatest thing for payments since well, credit cards, or even better, depending whom you ask. “What we’re seeing now is a once-in-a-lifetime generational shift away from traditional credit products,” Afterpay CEO and co-founder Anthony Eisen recently told The Australian. While the concept of zero-interest installment payments is not exactly revolutionary, Afterpay is one of the fintechs that has figured out how to package it right. As a result, Afterpay is not only one of the biggest BNPL firms in Australia but also the US. In March, Afterpay surpassed AU$1 billion in monthly sales in the US. With the US increasingly driving Afterpay’s growth, the company is considering an IPO on the Nasdaq. 

The arrival of digital banks in Hong Kong and Singapore has put some pressure on incumbents to up their game. At a minimum, traditional banks in Asia’s two main financial centers have slashed some unpopular fees and invested in more digital technology. Now that Malaysia has decided to introduce digital banks, its incumbent banks face some similar challenges to their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore. 

At long last, Line Bank has arrived in Taiwan. On April 22, the Japanese messaging app’s virtual bank went live, becoming the second digital bank in Taiwan after Rakuten Bank. Line Bank had been hampered by both pandemic and regulatory related delays. It originally planned to launch in mid-2020. Of the three virtual banks approved by the Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC), Line Bank has the strongest digital services ecosystem thanks to the popularity of its messaging app, e-wallet, entertainment and social commerce with Taiwanese consumers. 

After years of raising funds in private markets, Southeast Asia’s largest platform companies are suddenly eager to exit. The region’s foremost super app rivals are leading the pack, but the exit routes vary considerably. Grab is making SPAC history with the largest ever such deal, on the Nasdaq. Not to be outdone, Gojek and Tokopedia are moving to finalize their expected merger, which will likely include a listing both in New York and on Indonesia’s own stock exchange. The combined entity, the aptly named “GoTo,” could attain a valuation of US$30-$40 billion. 

In the world of fintech unicorns, a bit of exaggeration comes with the territory. After all, we are talking about companies valued in the billions or tens of billions of US dollars, despite failing to make a profit (in most cases). This is a world where what counts is not the shaky balance sheet today, but the supposed potential to revolutionize banking tomorrow. Growth is paramount – that’s how to keep the funding spigot on. But this approach to financial services comes with manifold risks. Possible compliance deficiencies at Australia’s Airwallex illustrate this point. 

Singapore is steadily carving out a niche for itself in the emerging green finance segment. Much as it has done with fintech, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is taking steps to make the city-state a hub for this up-and-coming area of financial services. MAS reckons that Asean will need annual green investment of US$200 billion annually. Given its role as the region’s leading financial center, Singapore is a natural choice to lead green financing efforts.

April 19 2021

Here comes the Grab SPAC

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Grab is heading for the exit ramp SPAC style. IPOs are slow, costly and let regulators hold a magnifying glass to a firm’s balance sheet. Less so with this SPAC on the Nasdaq, which will give Grab a high valuation (US$40 billion) and investors a way to cash out. Grab has been operating for about nine years. The merger will include roughly US$4.5 billion in cash, the largest share sale yet by a Southeast Asian firm in the U.S.

The Philippines is determined to speed up financial inclusion through digitization. By 2023, the BSP aims to digitize at least 50 percent of total retail transactions and bring 70% of Filipino adults into the formal financial system. To that end, it introduced guidelines for digital banks in December 2020 and has thus far received two applications. The rules require licensees to hold at least 1 billion pesos in capitalization, operate a head office in the Philippines and offer only-only banking services. Licensees are not permitted to set up physical branches. The review process will likely carry on through 2021, with the winners being announced on a rolling basis. Yet some fintechs are determined to enter the market earlier.

Singapore’s digital banking race had far more losers than winners. Of all the failed bids, Razer’s must have been among the hardest to swallow. The gaming hardware firm was a strong contender and had Sea and Grab not both been in the running, may well have prevailed. The question now is, can Razer still become a digital bank? The answer is maybe in Malaysia and/or the Philippines.

If there is one thing Revolut excels at, it is growth. It would be hard to find another neobank with as many accounts in as many different markets. All that growth is expensive, as seen in the £107 million Revolut lost in FY 2019, which it attributed to a hiring spree. Whether the UK’s most valuable fintech startup is any closer to profitability is an open question. What we do know is that it is eyeing expansion across Asia in 2021-22, with India the first stop. 

Before Ant Group’s IPO was nixed, the Shanghai STAR board was red hot. Since then, it has cooled off considerably. Not only is Ant’s IPO in limbo, but other Chinese tech companies are scuttling their plans to go public, one after the next. Ant is the bellwether for the market, whether it is a bull or bear. Data compiled by Financial Times show that 76 firms suspended their IPO applications in March, more than twice the number in February. Overall, 168 companies have put their plans to go public on ice since November. 

The buy now, pay later frenzy is moving from the advanced economies into emerging markets with Southeast Asia a hotspot. Given the rapid growth of fintech in the region and lack of credit card penetration in most countries it is relatively easy for BNPL to make inroads. In fact, BNPL is proving so popular that the segment is growing fast in Singapore too, where credit card penetration is 73%.

Thailand is one of the few major Southeast Asian economies that has not unveiled a digital banking roadmap. Singapore's digital banks will go live in 2022. Malaysia will accept applications for licenses this year and issue them by early next year. The Philippines recently announced it would issue digital bank licenses. Indonesia plans to clarify digital bank regulations by mid-2021. In contrast, Thailand's central bank has been quiet about the possibility of digital banks for more than a year.

Hong Kong's IPO market picked up in the first quarter right where left off in 2020, soaring to a new high in terms of overall proceeds, according to KPMG. Deals raised on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange totaled US$13.9 billion. The nixed Ant Group deal last October has sidelined most fintech listings but not the rest of what KPMG describes as "innovation companies," notably biotechs.

China is leading the world in CBDC development, prompting speculation that DCEP (digital currency, electronic payment) is on its way to becoming the digital equivalent of the U.S. dollar. The reality is more nuanced. To be sure, China's digital fiat currency is at a more advanced stage than any other major country's CBDC, and China has many potential applications for it domestically. When it comes to cross-border use, however, many questions remain about the digital yuan.

Heading into 2021, Indonesia's prospects for fintech investment were looking pretty good. Among Asia's key emerging markets, Indonesia checks all the right boxes. It is huge, relatively open to foreign investment, has a fast-growing economy (hindered by the pandemic for now, but certain to rebound sharply) and has a large unbanked population. With most Indonesians new to retail investing, fintechs see a strong opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Since January, several Indonesian online investing startups have closed successful funding rounds.

To date, South Korea has been less enthusiastic about launching a central bank digital currency (CBDC) than China or Japan. Beijing leads the world in CBDC development while Tokyo sees a CBDC as a necessity to stay competitive with its giant neighbor. Yet Seoul is now coming around to the need for a digital fiat currency, even if one of the government's purposes in developing one is to reduce the use of crypto in its economy. 

Australia's digital banking honeymoon is winding down. With Xinja and 86 400 both out of the picture - albeit in very different ways - the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) is moving to raise the sector's barrier to entry. It will become harder to get a banking license. Under the revised regulations, neobanks will have to be better capitalized and launch both an income-generating asset product and a deposit product in order to be approved for a full license. 

Nobody can accuse Airwallex of having modest ambitions. The Australia-founded and Hong Kong-based unicorn just raised another US$100 million in an extended Series D round at a valuation of US$2.6 billion. The U.S.'s Greenoaks was the lead investor. The cross-border payments upstart plans to use the capital injection to expand across four continents - Australia, North America, Europe and Asia.

After umpteen funding rounds and nearly nine years in operation, Grab is finally heading for the exit ramp. The question is, will the Singaporean decacorn choose to go public the usual way or do something different? Until the past few weeks, a standard IPO in New York looked like the obvious choice. But with the current SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) craze, Grab might decide to hop on the bandwagon.

Korea's K bank may have finally found the secret sauce. Long a laggard among Korean fintechs, the country's first digital lender is now riding the bitcoin boom thanks to a tie-up with the crypto exchange Upbit. Under a deal K bank and Upbit reached in June 2020, retail investors who want to trade crypto with Upbit must do so through the digital lender. Since last March, Korea has required exchanges to work with lenders like K Bank to ensure the use of valid, real-name accounts for trading. Eager to capitalize on the bitcoin boom, retail customers are signing up at K bank in droves.

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