Southeast Asian countries have for several years been interested in establishing a regional cross-border payments system. Full payments interoperability could be possible in Southeast Asia as early as November 2022, Fitch Solutions Risk and Industry Research said in a recent research note, citing comments made by Southeast Asian central bankers in July. Yet if we take a closer look, we find that the linkages are predominantly bilateral and there are still some kinks to be ironed out before a truly multilateral system of real-time retail payment rails can be established.
Given the ever-more complex geopolitical situation, it is well worth examining the state of renminbi internationalization. Lofty goals mooted in the early 2010s, such as a free float of the Chinese currency, and full convertibility of the capital account, seem out of reach for the foreseeable future. Nor is the renminbi becoming a dominant global reserve currency. Rather, its use is rising in specific use cases, such as bilateral trade settlement, often due to geopolitical considerations.
The wheels are coming off the bus of Sea Group’s cash-burning tripartite digital services ecosystem of gaming, e-commerce and fintech amid jitters in the global economy and investor skepticism of the company’s growth-first model. If you thought that even as it hemorrhaged cash by the hundreds of millions of dollars, Sea’s expansion to places like Poland, India and Colombia did not make a lot of sense, you are not alone. The question now is if the company’s austerity measures can both stop the bleeding and reassure investors that its fundamental business model is sound.
Rakuten wants to build a digital services ecosystem that stretches well beyond the e-commerce business for which it is best known and includes telecoms and digital financial services. With that in mind, the Japanese online shopping giant plans to list both its online securities and digital banking units relatively soon. However, market conditions are suboptimal to say the least, while investors are increasingly skeptical about Rakuten’s costly efforts to build a mobile network to compete against powerful incumbents SoftBank and NTT DoCoMo.
A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.
As Australian banks in recent years have been hit with unprecedentedly high fines for money-laundering violations, they have stepped up de-risking to reduce their exposure to the types of clients they believe could land them in regulatory hot water. In some cases, the banks simply refuse to do business with firms without good reason.
In a year that has seen fintech funding slow in many markets, Indonesia is proving to be something of an outlier. In the first half of 2022, Indonesian fintechs managed to raise US$1.8 billion, exceeding the total of US$1.6 billion raised in 2021.
We remember a time, before China’s tech crackdown, when Ant Group seemed keen on building its own cross-border payments ecosystem in Southeast Asia. The Chinese fintech giant’s shopping spree took it to nearly every Asean country, while it has also rolled out wholly-owned digital banks in the Asian financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore. Then, as now, the question was always how Ant could connect the disparate components of its non-mainland China ecosystem. If it cannot, the whole will never amount to a sum greater than the individual parts.
When we talk about countries that have inadequate anti-money laundering (AML) and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls, we usually mention how those deficiencies can cause a country to be pleased on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) gray list. Asian countries with the gray list designation who are working to be removed from it include the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar. But there is a more serious designation for countries seen as dangerous conduits for illicit financial activity: the blacklist. Unfortunately for Myanmar, it may soon end up on the blacklist.
Though the U.S. and China have for now reached a stock delisting détente, Chinese firms are continuing to show interest in raising capital on European exchanges this year. As such, for the first time ever, Chinese companies have raised more in European capital markets than in the U.S., with the focus on the UK and Switzerland.
Indonesia has big plans for its capital markets, among the best performing in Asia this year. Through August 5, 34 companies had listed on the Indonesia Stock Exchange (IDX), raising a total of 20.1 trillion rupiah. By the end of the third quarter, Indonesia plans to launch a new economy board to attract more unicorns. Further, by the end of the year, it plans to roll out a dedicated cryptocurrency bourse.
We wish we can say we are surprised but we are not: Taiwan’s digital banks are failing to disrupt the country’s financial services sector. While showing potential to exist as digital financial services platforms in a way incumbent Taiwanese lenders do not, Line Bank, Rakuten Bank and Next Bank nonetheless have a long road ahead to reach profitability, with only lending offering money-making (rather than losing) possibility in the short term. For at least the next few years, the digital lenders will struggle to break even on deposits and payments, while they are for the time being restricted from potentially more lucrative businesses like wealth management.
In the past three years, Hong Kong has faced unprecedented challenges that have brought into question its future as a financial center. Strict adherence to a zero-Covid policy has been particularly impactful. The inability of businesspeople to freely travel to and from Hong Kong has adversely affected the city’s business environment. Still, in certain respects, Hong Kong is continuing to thrive as a financial center.
Ending up on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list is unenviable. For developed economies and FATF members like Australia, it is not a common occurrence. However, FATF has previously found certain elements of Australia’s anti-money laundering (AML) controls deficient, and many of the same problems keep occurring. In recent years, several of the country’s largest banks have been slapped with massive fines, while its casinos are not doing enough to fight financial crime.
Southeast Asia’s preeminent platform companies have all bet big on fintech to boost their fortunes and lift them from the red into the black. It is a great idea in theory, but challenging to execute in practice. Competition is intense in the region and the super apps have to compete against pure-play fintechs and others not weighed down by unprofitable units that have nothing or very little to do with financial services. The super app concept only works if there is sufficient synergy among the different services provided by the platform company.
Pakistan continues to be one of Asia’s hottest fintech markets, buoyed by growing investor interest, one of the world’s largest unbanked populations and government support for digital finance-supported financial inclusion. Pakistan represents an exceptionally large opportunity for fintechs: Only 1% of its almost US$4 trillion of payments are made digitally. The past month has seen a number of notable deals that show the market is maintaining solid momentum despite a global economic slowdown and greater investor scrutiny in tech startups.
Did Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) have a crystal ball handy when it nixed a plan to acquire the troubled Thai crypto exchange Bitkub? The deal, announced in the late-stage crypto bull market of November 2021, had been on thin ice for months. Then came the announcement on August 25: The 17.8-billion-baht (US$536,000) deal was off. In a statement, SCB cited Bitkub’s “various issues” it was sorting out with Thai regulators as the reason the deal was being scrapped. On August 30, it became clear that the issues were serious.
While U.S.-China tensions are heated in many areas, it appears that the two countries want to keep the bilateral relationship on an even keel when it comes to the financial services sector. Despite the sensitive politics on both sides of the conversation, the two countries have, for now, reached an agreement that should reduce the chance of a large-scale delisting of Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges.
Indonesia is the most important market for Alibaba in Southeast Asia and arguably its most important market outside of China, period. Increasingly, Alibaba is focused on Indonesia’s burgeoning digital financial services market. Yet Alibaba recognized early on that it would be impossible to replicate the Alipay model outside of China and instead chose to take strategic stakes in various Indonesian fintech firms or companies with financial services arms.
In Asia and globally fintech funding has been slowing amid economic jitters and rampant inflation. Some cash-burning fintechs are finding that they are running out of cash to burn. Still, there are some exceptions, and India is a notable one. According to a new report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG), from January 2017 to July 2022, the Indian fintech market received US$29 billion in funding from 2,084 deals to date, accounting for 14% of global funding and No. 2 in deal volume. Unlike many other countries, India’s fintech funding has not dropped off sharply this year.
Meta, perhaps still better known as Facebook, is one of the biggest of Big Tech players in Asia Pacific, the dominant social media network for countries as diverse as India, Japan and Australia. Yet the ubiquity of the Facebook platform in the region, outside of notable exceptions such as China and North Korea, has not translated into success in Asia Pacific’s booming digital financial services market. Quite the opposite: Facebook is less than a footnote in this story. Meta’s inability – thus far – to tap into any of the region’s fintech markets augurs ill for its ability to grow sustainably in APAC.
No country likes to end up on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list. It means that FATF has determined a country’s anti-money laundering (AML) and/or counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls are somewhat deficient. It could be worse – they have a black list too – but that is reserved for the likes of North Korea. The Philippines has been on the FATF grey list since June 2021 and is hoping to exit by January 2023. But it will not be an easy task given persistent concerns about the country’s Bank Secrecy Law, inadequate regulation of the casino gaming sector and seeming reluctance to use the law to fight financial crime more aggressively.
We cannot think of a single Asian market where the arrival of digital banks has upended the competitive landscape. That’s not to say that digital lenders cannot put pressure on incumbents, especially to up their digital game and do something about that clunky legacy IT infrastructure. It is just that getting people to switch banks is much harder than doing the same for say, ride-hailing or food-delivery apps. With the arrival of digital banks in Malaysia, most incumbent lenders will feel some pressure, and consolidation may be in some of their interests, but the big players are unlikely to lose significant market share.
The Singapore Exchange has long been quiet compared to other prominent bourses in Asia, from Hong Kong to Shanghai, Tokyo to Mumbai. We might call it a sleeper – provided that it has adequate potential to awake. In 2021, fundraising on SGX fell 50% to $565 million, a six-year low, with just eight listings, according to Refintiv.
SoftBank has not been weathering the downturn in tech stocks and general rising investor skepticism towards growth-first startups especially well. In the second quarter, the company lost a record US$23 billion, prompting CEO Masayoshi Son to engage in some candid self-reflection. He described himself as becoming “somewhat delirious” during the apex of SoftBank’s startup funding binge when the investments were paying off big and says he is now “embarrassed and remorseful.” Nevertheless, some of SoftBank’s Asia fintech investments – which include several big players in the region – could still pay off in the long run.
It has been a long time since we heard anything from Dana, the Indonesian Ant Group-backed e-wallet. In the past few years as many big Asian tech firms have invested in incumbent Indonesian banks, intending to refashion them as digital lenders, standalone e-wallets, lacking banking licenses, have been at a disadvantage. Yet Dana may be able to carve out a niche within the ecosystem of Alibaba and the local conglomerate Sinar Mas following the purchase by Lazada of US$304.5 million worth of its shares from existing shareholder Emtek Group and its receipt of a fresh US$250 million investment from Sinar Mas.
Despite being recent arrivals to the Philippine financial services market and not having – at least for the most part – a large deposit base yet, the country’s digital banks are shaking up the market, prompting major fintechs without banking licenses and traditional lenders alike to step up their game. The Philippine central bank recently greenlighted one more digital bank, GoTyme, to start its operations while both UNObank Inc. and Aboitiz-led UnionDigital Bank Inc. started commercial operations last month.
For the past few years, the biggest credit story in India has been buy now, pay later (BNPL). Tremendous demand for credit has driven the BNPL boom in the subcontinent, but tighter regulation and slower growth are both now inevitable. After all, you cannot act as a credit provider without being regulated like one forever. As BNPL slows down in India, there may be an opportunity for the overlooked – but better regulated and steadily growing – credit card segment to build market share.
Can you think of any Western fintech firms that are dominant in Asia Pacific? Somewhat dominant? Neither can we. That may be because the region has no shortage of homegrown fintech options, especially in the ultra-competitive payments segment. That is not deterring Stripe though. As one of the most valuable startups in history, the U.S. payments giant thinks big, and sees significant market opportunities across the APAC region, including through strategic partnerships.
We have heard a lot about Chinese companies potentially delisting en masse from the U.S.’s capital markets. Without an eleventh-hour deal between the US and China, that may be inevitable. The paramount long-term trend, however, is where they will go in the first place to raise capital internationally. Hong Kong is the most obvious choice, but there are also options in Europe thanks to the establishment of stock connect programs. To that end, with the launch of the China-Switzerland Stock Connect four Chinese companies have listed on the Six Swiss Exchange.
When Cambodia swiftly launched its retail central bank digital currency (CBDC) Project Bakong, it seemed that other Southeast Asian countries might also make similar moves. Yet in the nearly two years since Bakong went live in October 2020, not a single nation in the region has launched a CBDC of its own. Even the pilot programs are proceeding slowly. It seems that the hype around digital fiat currencies is subsiding and governments are worrying less about whether their nations will be left behind in the next generation of finance and more about if a CBDC offers clear benefits that justify its costs.
Paytm is in high spirits. Its stock has risen 45% over the past three months, making it an outlier among fintechs. Paytm is even feeling pretty good about losing 6.44 billion rupees (US$81 million) in the first quarter of FY2023, an increase of 70% from a loss of 3.8 billion rupees a year earlier. Paytm attributed the higher loss to increased operating costs and said it is on track to reach operating profitability by the second quarter of the fiscal year.
Crypto believers will point to Thailand recently greenlighting four new digital assets companies to say that the kingdom remains a booster of decentralized virtual currencies. These include Krungthai XSpring, a crypto broker affiliated with one of the country’s leading banks, crypto exchange T-BOX Thailand, crypto adviser and fund manager Coindee and Leif Capital Asset Management, which also manages funds. We reckon Thailand is not going to crack down on crypto as China and India have, but the digital assets’ freewheeling days in the kingdom are quickly winding down. Tighter regulation is inevitable given retail investors’ recent losses in the digital assets market.
As fintech startups stare down the barrel of a dot-com-like crash, it is becoming clearer by the day that only the strong will survive. And the strong in this industry, where ironically (given this is financial services) being profitable has not been paramount, tend to have loads of cash to spend. The UK’s Revolut is one of those fintechs who really seems too big to fail, and that is why despite tough macroeconomic conditions the company is pushing full speed ahead into different Asia-Pacific markets including Singapore, Australia and India.