The paramountcy of the SWIFT interbank messaging network to cross-border payments can be measured in many ways, and SWIFT itself likes to do so with its data on transaction numbers and amounts. For instance, as of December 2022, Swift had recorded an average of 44.8 million FIN messages (payments and securities transactions) per day during the year, a year on year rise of 6.6%.
The last time Japan’s stock market was soaring this high, its bubble economy had yet to burst and the Soviet Union still existed. On May 22, the Nikkei index crossed 31,000, hitting a fresh 33-year peak. With gains about 20% for the year, the Nikkei is the top performing Asian stock exchange and just behind the Nasdaq globally. Brokerage SMBC Nikko Securities expects the Nikkei to end the year at 35,000, while Sumitomo Mitsui DS Asset Management expects the index at 33,500.
Chinese companies keen to raise capital overseas have largely shifted away from the U.S. in recent years amid persistent geopolitical tensions. Europe has emerged as a viable alternative, especially Switzerland’s SIX Exchange. While no European country’s capital markets are as liquid as the U.S.’s, the overall process in Europe is much smoother for Chinese firms these days. That said, new GDR issuance rules mandated by Beijing will probably adversely affect the European deal pipeline.
Raising money is not nearly as easy it used to be for fintechs, but that has not stopped PhonePe. India’s Walmart-owned payments fintech giant just raised another US$100 million from private equity firm General Atlantic as it races towards a US$1 billion fundraising goal. PhonePe is arguably the most prominent Indian fintech unicorn that has yet go public, with a valuation of US$12 billion, massive transaction volume and a commanding presence on the ubiquitous United Payments Interface (UPI) payments rail.
Across Asia’s emerging markets, earned wage access (EWA) has been gaining traction rapidly in the past two years. In a nutshell, EWA platforms allow employees of a company to access a portion of their earned pay before payday. EWA is catching on fast in some of Southeast Asia’s largest emerging markets where per-capita GDP remains relatively low and significant portions of the population are either unbanked or underbanked.
Cryptocurrency may have originated in the G7 – if we assume Satoshi Nakamoto is Japanese – but in practice developing countries have often been the most enthusiastic about embracing decentralized virtual currencies. The reason is simple: Crypto’s promise of financial democratization has a strong appeal in countries where large segments of the population lack access to certain banking services.
While many IPO markets are lukewarm at best this year, the Indonesia Stock Exchange is doing comparably well. Globally in the first quarter, a total of 299 IPOs raised US$21.5 billion, a sharp decrease of 61% over the same period a year earlier. The usual suspects are responsible: high interests, stubborn inflation, geopolitical tumult – as well as some big and unexpected bank failures. Yet IDX had a cracking Q1: Its US$1.45 billion in IPO proceeds from January to March was its best-ever first-quarter tally, outstripping Hong Kong, Tokyo and London.
How many platform companies outside of China have been able to make the super app concept work? Last time we checked, the only profitable one with a thriving fintech unit is Korea’s Kakao, and the jury is still out on that company. Unlike Korea or China though, Southeast Asia is an extremely heterogenous market – if we can even call a region with 11 countries that speak many different languages a single “market” – which means that a one-size-fits-all super app was never going to be an easy sell. On top of that, Southeast Asia’s consumers have limited spending power while competition in digital services is intense. Grab’s first-quarter performance highlights the challenge platform companies in the region face.
Sea Group is no longer losing hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, it’s making tens of millions. In the quarter ended March 2023, Sea posted a profit of US$88.1 million. With Sea now reaching the promised land of profitability, one would think that investors would react exuberantly. Not so. Instead, Sea’s stock slid almost 18% on May 16, the day it announced Q1 earnings, to close at US$72.45.
This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle.
The majority of cross-border payments are currently carried out via telegraphic transfers supported by SWIFT’s network of correspondent banks. These transfers are often criticized for being slow and expensive. A transfer can take several days to complete, while the World Bank estimates the average cost of a transaction to be about 6% of the transfer value.
In East Asia, digital banks often are incumbent banks and tech giants in disguise, not so much disrupting the market as putting a new spin on an old story. There are exceptions though, and the Philippines is arguably the most prominent. A unique confluence of factors, from its unique island geography (it has about 2,000 inhabited islands) to complacent incumbents to a significant unbanked population to a central government plan that relies on digital finance to rapidly boost financial inclusion, has given online lenders a real chance to shake up the market and challenge incumbent lenders.
In its competition with Hong Kong to be Asia’s top fintech hub, it is pretty clear Singapore has won. Its linkages to Southeast Asia and India – where the fintech growth story is – are superior, while Hong Kong is more narrowly focused on mainland China, where fintech peaked a while back. Singapore also weathered the pandemic better. That said, Hong Kong is emerging as a strong player in green finance, with some analysts giving it the edge over Singapore.
Since China unveiled the digital renminbi several years ago, it has been hyped as a juggernaut that would dethrone the dollar in the international financial system while relegating China’s domestic e-payments duopoly of Alipay and Tenpay to supporting roles. The digital yuan’s biggest boosters – usually not Chinese policymakers – made such predictions without offering compelling evidence to support their arguments.
It’s all about financial inclusion: That’s why buy now, pay later (BNPL) is continuing to grow briskly in Indonesia, why regulators are maintaining a light touch, why venture capitalists and others keep pouring money into the country’s BNPL firms. Indonesia has an unbanked population of 181 million that is larger than the populations of most countries and many more underbanked people. Interest-free (if you pay on time) installment payments seamlessly integrated into e-wallets could become a dominant form of de facto credit in the country.
2022 is a tough act to follow for China’s IPO market. Last year, about 400 firms went public on China’s exchanges, raising a record RMB 560 billion (US$80.4 billion), an increase of 3% over 2021, according to PwC. Investor appetite was strong last year amid a resilient Chinese economy, tech firms continuing to emerge, and large red-chip companies listed overseas returning to mainland stock markets. While Chinese exchanges are unlikely to equal their stellar 2022 performance this year, they still have thus far raised five times as much as their U.S. counterparts.
Vietnam is a unique fintech market. It may be the most fragmented of all the major ones in Southeast Asia, where dominant players have yet to emerge in most market segments. Because of the extreme fragmentation, Vietnam has produced fewer unicorns than Indonesia or the Philippines, and that makes the ones that do exist all the more notable. The one fintech firm in Vietnam that can realistically make a play for super app status is MoMo, which hit the US$1 billion valuation in December 2021 and has continued its steady ascent since.
This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle.
Given the hype around the nascent decentralized third iteration of the internet, it is common these days to read or hear that “Web3 is the future of payments.” But is it?
The rising ubiquity of smartphones together with broader digital transformation in the business world are catalyzing the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) in the financial services sector. As AI matures and becomes more widely integrated into business operations, this trend is set to accelerate.
Singapore has long competed with Hong Kong in asset management. While the latter’s industry is still larger, the city-state’s has been growing expeditiously, buoyed by an influx of capital from China as well as the broader global super rich. Singapore's assets under management grew 16% to S$5.4 trillion (US$404.6 billion) in 2021. More than 75% of that originated outside Singapore, with about 30% coming from other Asia-Pacific countries.
What is going on with Malaysia’s digibanks? All that hype about who would win the licenses, lots of anticipation, the announcement of the five winners, and a year later there seems to be little demonstrable progress. According to a recent report by The Ken, Malaysian digibanks have a human capital problem: That is, they are having a hard time finding the right talent. Without the right people, the five digital lenders will not be off to a strong start.
Hong Kong’s IPO market had been expected to perform well in the first quarter following the easing of both China’s tech crackdown and zero-Covid policy. With both of those market disruptors in the rearview mirror, it stood to reason that Hong Kong’s capital markets could get back to business as usual. Alas, it was not meant to be. In the January-March period, Hong Kong IPOs raised just US$837 million, a 52% annual decrease and the worst performance since the global financial crisis in 2009, according to data compiled by Refinitiv.
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.
During the pandemic, the idea of a travel-focused super app built on top of an airline and focused on the Asia-Pacific region seemed iffy. After all, international travel was grounded in Asia for longer than anywhere else in the world. But with the pandemic in the rearview mirror at last, Capital A CEO Tony Fernandes’ idea is starting to make more sense. All the groundwork AirAsia did to build its super app may come to fruition before long.
This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle.
It was one thing for the European Union (EU) to talk about enacting comprehensive cryptocurrency regulation: It is another to pass the corresponding legislation. That is exactly what the EU did in late April with the long-anticipated Markets in Cryptoassets (MiCA) directive. MiCA will regulate the cryptocurrency sector with common rules across all 27 of the EU’s member states.
Several years in the making, MiCA is part of a broader push by the EU to regulate digital finance more like it does the rest of financial services. Other legislation focused on this objective includes the Digital Operational Resilience Act (DORA) and the DLT Pilot Regime Regulation.
Once it goes into effect in July 2024, MiCA will classify crypto in three categories subject to different regulation based on their underlying risk: electric money tokens (EMTs), asset-referenced tokens (ARTs) – both of which are variants of stablecoins – and all others. The “others” will include non-pegged payment tokens like bitcoin.
Under MiCA, any firm providing crypto services in the EU must register in one of the bloc’s member states. Once they do that, they can operate throughout the EU. The European Banking Authority and the European Securities and Markets Authority will be responsible for ensuring compliance by crypto firms to eschew another FTX-like catastrophe.
And it is no exaggeration to say that the sudden, rapid implosion of the erstwhile US$32 billion exchange highlighted the urgency of implementing regulations for the crypto sector.
“Under the MiCA regime, no company providing crypto assets in the EU would have been allowed to be organized, or perhaps I should say disorganized, in the way FTX reportedly was,” Alexandra Jour-Schroeder, deputy director general at the European Commission’s financial-services arm, said in November, shortly after the once-massive exchange imploded.
With the adoption of a unified regulatory framework for digital assets, the EU is taking a step no other jurisdiction has to date. Chances are – barring a dramatic increase in severity of the crypto bear market – that the many crypto fence sitters will feel more pressure to act.
“It would be a surprise if other jurisdictions like the UK and the US aren’t quick to follow suit and further accelerate their crypto regulatory efforts,” Alisa DiCaprio, chief economist at enterprise blockchain firm R3, told Bloomberg.
In fact, in the lead-up to MiCA’s passage in April, crypto venture capital investment in Europe overtook that in the U.S., according to data compiled by Pitchbook. Prior to the January-March period, Europe had rarely, if ever, led the U.S. in that category.
The EU should be commended for its efforts to develop a robust and enduring regulatory framework for digital assets. It is likely that the benefits of the legislation will outweigh its shortcomings, and it could set a global standard for crypto regulations.
That said, MiCA has a few potential problem areas worthy of note. CoinDesk identified one in late 2022: Although MiCA requires companies targeting the EU market to register with a local regulator, certain exemptions exist that could be exploited.
For instance, if a company based outside the EU provides relevant crypto-asset services at the "own exclusive initiative" of a customer residing within the bloc, that company does not have to obtain authorization under MiCA. Similar provisions exist under the EU’s Markets in Financial Instruments Directive 2014 (MiFID II).
Known as “reverse solicitation,” this scenario exists for practical reasons. It is challenging for regulators to control how companies and individuals in the EU engage with overseas crypto firms and a blanket ban on such activity like China has implemented is not feasible for Europe.
EU officials say that the risk of reverse solicitation being abused could be mitigated if other jurisdictions adopt similar regulations to MiCA. Perhaps, but easier said than done. It is too early to say whether other countries will follow the MiCA model.
MiCA also imposes some restrictions on stablecoins that crypto diehards are chafing at. MiCA will require operations to maintain local reserves and face trading caps on non-euro-denominated tokens not backed by fiat currency.
Glass half full
Imperfect as it may be, MiCA represents an important step forward in the ongoing and arduous process of cryptocurrency regulation. Detractors of the legislation, which often point out it does not regulate NFTs, should recognize that effective regulation of a new asset class and its underlying technology does not happen overnight.
What MiCA will accomplish in the short run is an elevation of cryptocurrency from the financial underground to the aboveboard mainstream. Bringing crypto out of the shadows and under some centralized regulatory control will disappoint some decentralization zealots, but more importantly, it will help curb fraud, money laundering and other malfeasance that easily proliferate in the absence of proper regulation.
MiCA could also, in the long run, boost the development of a thriving Web3 ecosystem undergirded by stablecoins. For stablecoins to be adopted widely, two factors are crucial: building the proper infrastructure and implementing the right regulation. To the first point, better infrastructure is still needed to enable Web3 payments. With regards to the second, MiCA is likely to be a key part of it.
MiCA mandates that stablecoins are sufficiently backed, have capital requirements for issuers, and have issuance limits. It also focused on transparency. The clarity introduced by these rules will likely boost the confidence of consumers and business to use stablecoins, ultimately catalyzing much wider adoption throughout the EU.
Asset-backed stablecoins are ideal for Web3 payments given their stability against fiat currencies, giving banks and payments providers the ability to facilitate payments outside traditional bank rails. Stablecoins also have significant reconciliation, speed and cost advantages.
Wider adoption of stablecoins, which are cheaper and faster than other instant payment schemes, could ultimately help break down payment barriers, democratizing finance and creating new international growth opportunities for SMEs, especially in markets where correspondent banking is less mature.
This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle and originally appeared on Banking Circle.
2023 has been an eventful year for renminbi internationalization thus far with China striking deals with several different countries to increase trade settlement in the Chinese currency. The renminbi seems destined to become increasingly important in international trade. While some of the media attention given to these deals would suggest they herald a broader de-dollarization movement, the reality is more nuanced.
In recent years, political tumult and Covid restrictions have dented Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial center. Yet Hong Kong faces another type of challenge now: how to best capitalize on opportunities afforded by the financial sector’s rapid digitization. That is where Hong Kong’s newfound interest in cryptocurrency derives, especially given how it has lost some ground to Singapore in wealth management and fintech.
One would be hard pressed to find any market in East Asia except the Philippines where startups are major digital banking players. In one jurisdiction after the next, regulators have ensured that incumbent lenders and in some cases large technology companies win the requisite licenses to operate online-only banks.
Japan’s largest banks are increasingly looking to fintech opportunities in Asia’s emerging markets as an avenue for growth, as their home market is mature, a laggard in digital transformation and constrained by the world’s greyest population. In contrast, much of Southeast Asia as well as India still have plenty of low-hanging fruit, whether in the payments segment, banking, or both.
In the battle of Southeast Asia’s platform companies, the one that never declared itself a super app is edging out the others in digital financial services. Despite a slowdown in its gaming arm Garena, Sea Group is growing expeditiously in the e-commerce and fintech segments, a proven synergistic combination if we ever saw one. Just look at Taobao and Alipay. It’s just a more compelling one-two punch than trying to turn a ride-hailing app into a bank like Sea’s competitors are set on doing.
In Asia Pacific, Japan is taking a proactive position on stablecoin regulation much as it has other elements of cryptocurrency rules since 2017. New regulations are expected to come into effect in June, while Japanese banks recently began a stablecoin experiment on an Ethereum public chain. Though certain crypto fundamentalists decry Japan’s stablecoin regulations as overly restrictive, in reality, the alternative is unattractive. UST’s spectacular implosion last year and the subsequent criminal charges brought by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission against Terraforms Labs founder are a pointed reminder of what happens when stablecoins are left entirely to “market forces.”
It is no exaggeration to say that India’s United Payments Interface (UPI) real-time payments system has been a game changer for the subcontinent. In a nutshell, UPI has transformed how Indians make payments, allowing them for the first time to easily transfer money instantly from one bank account to another: from a customer to a business, or between individuals.
In the roughly seven years since it was launched, UPI has accrued 260 million users in a population of 1.4 billion and been a decisive factor in India’s embrace of cashless payments thanks to its ease of use and interoperability. Mastercard’s 2022 New Payments Index found that Indians are the most willing of any consumers in the Asia-Pacific region to use emerging cashless payment methods with 93% likely to have made such a payment in the past year.
While many fintech success stories have come entirely from the private sector, state-backed UPI shows that public-private digital financial inclusion efforts can bear fruit when they are implemented well. Having achieved dominance at home, UPI now has set its sights on global expansion.
The question is: Can what works for digital payments in India work globally?
While most digital banks struggle to make money, South Korea’s are largely profitable. They have been able to scale up quickly, despite negligible financial inclusion needs. According to the World Bank, almost 99% of South Koreans have a bank account. The factors that have made Kakao Bank, K Bank and Toss Bank successful are unique to South Korea and are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.
The largest U.S. payments firms have had their eyes on the China market for decades, in some cases since the country kicked off economic reforms in 1978. They have waited with the utmost patience to gain access to the colossal Chinese payments and cards market, valued at US$21 trillion in 2021 by research firm Global Data. In recent years, American Express and PayPal have made some incremental progress in the China market as Beijing has gradually permitted more foreign investment in its payments sector.
At long last, Taiwan plans to adopt some basic cryptocurrency regulations beyond requiring crypto firms to adhere to existing anti-money laundering legislation. The Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) will be responsible for the regulations, though the extent of its role has yet to be decided. In all likelihood, the FSC will continue to take a hands-off approach to decentralized digital currencies due to its limited understanding of them and preference to not get heavily involved in a segment of financial services that remains well outside of the mainstream in Taiwan and thus with relatively few ties to the banking system.