Financial Industry Blog - Kapronasia

Cambodia has been on the gray list of the international financial crime watchdog FATF for several years due to its inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls. Gray list designation requires additional levels of compliance for international financial transactions with the kingdom, which while not a dealbreaker for foreign investment in Cambodia, makes it more troublesome than in countries not on the list. As Cambodia emerges from the pandemic, it is eager to be removed from the gray list to help boost its Covid-battered economy, which contracted 3.1% in 2020 and grew just 2.6% in 2021.

Since being placed on FATF’s grey list in 2020, Cambodia has moved to strengthen its money laundering controls. One key step has been to move towards stricter regulation of its crime-ridden casino gaming sector. Cambodia has nearly 200 casinos, but its National Assembly only approved a draft law on commercial gaming management in November 2020. The draft law implemented controls to stymie money laundering and terrorism financing as well as monitor casinos, establish gambling zones and set forth minimum investment thresholds for a new casino.

To supplement the law, in August 2021 two sub-decrees were issued by the government to establish a new regulatory body, the Cambodian Commercial Gaming Commission (CCGC), to deal with licensing issues, issue guidelines, propose new regulations and resolve disputes. The decrees also introduced new minimum capital requirements for casino operators. Thereafter, new regulations were added to the original text to ensure its effective implementation.

Further, in June 2022, Cambodia enacted the Law on the Prevention of Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism. The law is a response to both rising incidence of money laundering and human trafficking, crimes which both surged following the transformation of Sihanoukville in Preah Sihanouk province into a casino-resort hub.

While the establishment of this legislation is indeed a step in the right direction, it is only the first step. For FATF inspectors, the devil will be in the details: To what degree has the legislation been effectively implemented?

This especially applies to the Cambodian financial sector. It is unclear to what degree banks and other financial institutions in the country have improved their ability to combat illicit money flows. Cambodia Financial Intelligence Unit (CAFIU), the National Bank unit responsible for combating money laundering, said in 2020 that it had been “working very hard” to delist the country from FATF’s grey list but did not offer many specifics.

FATF inspectors will visit Cambodia in early 2023 to assess how much progress has been made on implementing the watchdog’s recommendations. Cambodian officials say that based on primary reports received from the National Bank of Cambodia and others, the Kingdom has made substantial progress in strengthening its money laundering controls over the past two years.

One way that FATF inspectors determine if a country’s AML/CFT controls are adequate is by analyzing prosecution of related crimes. Even if a country has enacted comprehensive legislation targeting financial crime, if there are few incidences of prosecutions the financial crime watchdog may be unsatisfied with the country’s progress.

Given the fall in international travel during the pandemic, Cambodia has had fewer opportunities to catch people illegally bringing large amounts of money into the country. However, in 2019, it did make some related high-profile arrests. According to The Phnom Penh Post, in 2019, Cambodia confiscated more than US$10 million in cash illegally imported by foreigners. In one instance, three Chinese nationals who were US$900,000 in cash in their luggage without any clear source were arrested. In another case, two Koreans with more than US$2 million in cash were arrested.

Across the Asia-Pacific region, digital banks have sprung up at a rapid rate in recent years. Regulators have ostensibly encouraged the establishment of online-only banks to spur greater competition in the banking sector, which in most markets is dominated by incumbent lenders afflicted with complacency of varying severity.

Historically, Chinese companies seeking to go public overseas have listed in the United States, home to the world’s most liquid capital markets. Nothing can quite compare with listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or Nasdaq. While that remains the case, the fraught U.S.-China relationship has caused Chinese firms to turn their focus to European stock exchanges, especially Switzerland’s SIX. In Europe, Chinese companies can mostly steer clear of geopolitical tensions while still being able to access global investors.

Southeast Asia’s preeminent platform companies are adjusting to a painful new reality: More is not always better. Sea Group, Grab and GoTo have all expanded at a torrid pace amid a free flow of venture capital funding that only recently started to dry up with the end of ultra-low interest rates and the arrival of greater economic uncertainty. The tougher business environment will put to the test their shaky super app value proposition, especially the idea that fintech works best as part of a broader digital services ecosystem rather than as a pure-play business model.

There is a lot of speculation right now about whether India will make good on its promise to cap third-party payment providers’ market share on the United Payments Interface (UPI) at 30%. We argued when the idea was first proposed several years ago that it did not make a lot of sense and would be hard to implement. Now, with December 2022 deadline looming, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which operates UPI, and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) are considering extending the deadline.

The bigger they come, the harder they fall, especially in an industry like crypto that has rapidly become colossal yet still operates largely in the shadows. The abrupt implosion of crypto exchange FTX might be a Lehman moment, or it might be an Enron moment, or it might be something else entirely. It is hard to say at this point.

Hong Kong as Asia’s top crypto hub? Really? That is our reaction to the speculation that the Chinese SAR could beat out Singapore for Asia’s crypto crown that has emerged since Hong Kong officials at Hong Kong Fintech Week announced a public consultation on how retail investors could have a suitable degree of access to digital assets under a new licensing regime. Rules currently limit crypto trades to institutional investors with a portfolio of at least HK$8mn ($1mn). Yet it is hard to see how Hong Kong can chart such a markedly different course on crypto than mainland China.

China’s fintech sector was never the same after November 3, 2020. That was the day Chinese regulators abruptly nixed Ant Group’s mega IPO, a dual Shanghai and Hong Kong listing that was expected to raise US$37 billion and value the Chinese fintech giant at a whopping US$315 billion. The cancellation of Ant’s IPO proved to be the beginning of an extended campaign to curb the dominance of Big Tech in China’s financial services industry.

Kakao’s fintech results continue to be mixed – a tale of two platforms in some respects. Much like its strategic investor and perhaps spiritual guide Alipay, Kakao has developed a digital bank and payments app as two separate units. Thus far, the online lender Kakao Bank has consistently outperformed the e-wallet Kakao Pay, and that held true once again in the third quarter of the year.We have lauded Kakao many times for developing a profitable financial services super app. It is the only company outside of China to achieve such a feat. However, it might be worth considering at this point if the two separate units are sufficiently complementary.

Xiaomi is one of China’s and the world’s largest smartphone makers. But the company is not content with that position – given low margins and extreme competition in the sector –  and has long been searching for new avenues of growth. That’s how Xiaomi began to move into fintech several years ago. As it turns out, transitioning from technology hardware into digital financial services is much more challenging than Xiaomi likely imagined.

The Hong Kong financial center lexicon is ever expanding. Depending whom you ask, Hong Kong is an international financial center, Asia’s most important financial center, China’s offshore financial center or some combination of all three. Historically, Hong Kong liked to stay out of politics and thrived on its combination of laissez-faire capitalism, strong, independent legal system and knack for acting as a bridge to the Chinese mainland. Going forward, those factors will remain integral to Hong Kong’s success, but important questions remain about how economic and financial policy choices on the mainland will affect the city’s fortunes.

BNPL, or buy now pay later, is a type of payment option that allows customers to purchase items now and pay for them later in installments. This type of payment option has been gaining popularity in recent years, especially among younger shoppers. In fact, a recent study showed that BNPL usage has increased by 400% among millennials in the past two years.

BNPL first emerged in Asia in 2014 and has since become extremely popular in countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore. In China, for example, the BNPL market is expected to grow from $30 billion in 2020 to $750 billion by 2025. It could be argued that Australia was the epicentre of BNPL in Asia with such previous market leaders including Afterpay and Zip. So, what is driving this massive growth? Let's take a closer look at BNPL in Asia and how it works.

The Philippines recently experienced a setback in its fight against financial crime: The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) declined to remove the Southeast Asian country from its grey list, on which it was placed in June 2021 for having inadequate money-laundering and counterterrorism financing controls. After a two-day plenary in October, Paris-based FATF decided to keep the Philippines on the list along with 22 other jurisdictions.

The newest digital bank in Singapore stealthily came into existence, flying below the radar in contrast to the high-profile race for digital banking licenses that ended with victories by Grab-Singtel, Sea, Ant Group and a consortium headed by China’s Greenland Holdings. Now competing with these four digital banks is Trust Bank, launched in September by Standard Chartered and NTUC FairPrice, Singapore’s largest supermarket chain.

Cambodia became one of the first countries in the world to launch a central bank digital currency (CBDC) in October 2020. As adoption of Cambodia’s blockchain-based retail CBDC Project Bakong proceeded expeditiously, other Southeast Asian countries with similar financial inclusion needs and openness to digitization of financial services were expected to follow suit.

Yet two years after Bakong’s launch, no other ASEAN country has launched a digital fiat currency. As the hype around CBDCs has cooled, Southeast Asian countries are worrying less about being first movers in this nascent field and more about if a CBDC offers them benefits that justify its costs.

Paytm’s path to profitability has always been a bit convoluted given the company’s labyrinthine business lines and its determination to compete in so many retail segments that require regular subsidizing of customers. That said, it enjoys a scale that few – if any – of its competitors can boast, the backing of some very deep-pocketed investors and the ability to raise cash cheaply on India’s stock exchange.

Thailand has never been in a rush to introduce digital banks. After all, the kingdom is neither a financial center like Hong Kong or Singapore, nor does it have a huge unbanked population likes Indonesia and the Philippines. About 81% of Thais have a bank account. However, it is possible that introducing online banks could improve competition in Thailand’s financial sector – and that appears to be one of the key goals of the Bank of Thailand (BoT) as it moves forward on digital banks.

Being placed under increased monitoring by the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) is never welcome news for a country. Besides the reputational damage that comes along with such a designation, there are many practical problems caused by the restrictions that may be put on financial transactions as well as burdensome compliance requirements. Most countries are put on FATF’s gray list due to inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing controls. However, occasionally a country is added to the blacklist – reserved for the countries that pose the most serious financial crime risks – including North Korea and Iran – which is what happened to Myanmar last month.

The proof of the tentative state of Australia’s bid to introduce greater competition into its financial services sector is in the pudding: The country’s big four incumbent lenders have increased in size despite the high-profile launches of different neobanks in recent years. Of that crop of upstarts, the last one left standing is Judo Bank. The others have either collapsed or been acquired. Meanwhile, the big four are arguably stronger than ever.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

Cross-border payments are increasingly characterized by a dynamic and challenging market environment. On the one hand, the market is booming and expected to reach US$156 trillion this year. On the other, traditional international correspondent banking networks are shrinking at the same time that alternative rails that execute payments in real time are increasingly common. Thus, financial institutions (FIs) have more choice than ever, but being able to connect seamlessly to all the rails is not straightforward.

The crypto bear market sure is not slowing down North Korea’s cyber criminals. Chainalysis data show that North Korean hackers stole US$840 million in decentralized virtual currencies from January to May, about US$200 million more than they pilfered in 2020 and 2021 combined. "By any standard, they [North Korea] are a crypto superpower,” former North Korea analyst at the FBI Nick Carlsen told CNET in a recent interview.

Razorpay is the rare fintech unicorn with discipline and focus, as well as a sky-high valuation. Last valued at US$7.5 billion in December 2021, the Bengaluru-based payments gateway is notable for growing through strategic acquisitions and sticking to its B2B focus despite pressure to foray into retail. It is now poised to expand beyond its home market into Southeast Asia.

China’s largest ever tech crackdown has failed to dethrone Alipay and WeChat Pay from their dominance of the country’s fintech sector, even if it has reduced their profitability. For better or worse, the duopoly seems to have staying power, especially in payments, the stickiness of the respective super apps evident. However, there has long been a line of thinking that payments interoperability and the digital renminbi together will pose a threat to the duopoly. Following recent comments by a senior People’s Bank of China (PBoC) official about the need to standardize QR codes, there is renewed speculation that the payments hegemony of China’s fintech juggernauts could be waning.

Ever since news of the 1MDB scandal broke, Singapore has been on heightened alert for financial crime. As Southeast Asia’s premier financial hub, it faces certain risks. In the past few years, it has been grappling with a rise in digital financial crime that has dovetailed with the timeline of the coronavirus pandemic. While online scams and phishing remain a vexing problem, the city-state now also has to contend with bad actors in the cryptocurrency sector in which it has invested considerable resources.

Indonesia is gradually turning into a success story for peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, which is able to meet demand for credit that traditional lenders cannot. In the past few years overall lending by fintechs has been growing much faster than that of banks in Southeast Asia’s largest economy, according to the Indonesian Joint Funding Fintech Association (AFPI).

In early October, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) published a 50-page concept note outlining its vision for a digital rupee. The document explains the RBI’s reasons for rolling out a central bank digital currency, such as boosting financial inclusion, accelerating financial digitization and enhancing financial stability, but does not offer a specific timeline for the launch of the Indian digital fiat currency.

In recent years, digital banks have become increasingly common in Asia Pacific, including in the region’s advanced economies. Though these markets are well banked, regulators have sought to introduce greater market competition and promote digital transformation among oft-complacent incumbents.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

Cross-border payments in Asia Pacific have made significant strides in recent years, buoyed by strong economic growth and steady digitization of financial services. Estimated by McKinsey & Co. to have grown at 6% annually from 2011-2019, the region’s cross-border payments account for an increasingly large share of a global market expected to reach US$156 trillion globally this year.

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