Financial Industry Blog - Kapronasia

On May 8, Paytm’s share price hit a nadir of 317.45 Indian rupees (US$3.80). While since then the company’s stock has risen top about 369 rupees, Paytm continues to face a slew of challenges. The Indian fintech giant’s stock has fallen about 49% in value over the past year and 76% since its November 2021 IPO.

Across Asia, there have been many regulatory sandboxes launched in recent years intended to support fintech innovation. However, in many cases, big fintech success stories emerged outside of the sandboxes, usually because the sandboxes were too restrictive. While regulatory support is important to facilitate a healthy fintech ecosystem, it is not usually government that spurs the most significant innovation – but the private sector. That said, Hong Kong appears to be leaning into the sandbox concept as part to see that as part of its plan to build a hub for cryptocurrency.

The Philippines is one of Asia’s most promising digital banking markets thanks to a favorable combination of underbanked consumers, island geography that limits the footprint of physical bank branches and incumbents with average digital capabilities. That said, it will take time for online banks to be profitable, and in March, the Philippine central bank (BSP) said that just two of the official digital lenders – which it did not identify – are profitable and it may take five to seven years before the others reach that milestone. Investors, however, appear to be willing to play the long game in this market segment.

It is no secret that super apps outside of China and Korea are struggling to reinvent themselves as investors challenge their core value proposition of bundling different digital services through a single interface. Share prices speak volumes about what investors think of these companies. Years ago, we said it, and we’ll say it again now: It is unclear that people in Southeast Asian countries prefer to use super apps for banking, or that all the business units in super apps can perform well enough to make the business model sustainable. There are plenty of pure-play fintechs out there in Southeast Asia with interesting value propositions who are leaner and more agile than super apps. Still, maybe Grab can prove the naysayers wrong.

Those who do not follow China’s payments sector closely may not have heard of LianLian Digitech, a Hangzhou-based fintech firm that presides over an ascendant cross-border payments network and counts among its strategic partners American Express. LianLian has leaned hard into market segments not dominated by the traditional Chinese payments duopoly of Alipay and Tenpay, whether by partnering with a global card giant like Amex on renminbi clearing in China’s domestic market or by capitalizing on a growing appetite among China’s e-commerce sector to do business overseas.

For several years, there was much hype and excitement about copying China's immensely successful "super app" model to the rest of Asia and the world. China’s super apps, WeChat and Alipay, brought together products and services in a seamless platform, offering everything from messaging and social media to ride-hailing, food delivery, and financial services.

In the past six months, Indian regulators have been active tightening regulation of fintechs in different industry segments. The most notable action came earlier this year with the effective shutdown of Paytm Payments Bank. It is hard to say exactly why the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is taking a harder line – but we suspect it may have something to do with the industry reaching a certain stage of development and the RBI believing that once they have been allowed enough space to grow, digital finance companies should be bound by similar constraints as incumbent financial institutions.  One of the areas where they are focusing their attention is peer-to-peer (P2P) lending.

South Korea’s digital banks have long been outliers, with market leader Kakao Bank one of the most successful online lenders in Asia. Though Kakao Bank’s share price has fallen about 65% since its November 2021 IPO, that reflects macroeconomic conditions and investors adjusting overly high expectations for the company more than any underlying issues with its business model or earnings. To that end, in the March quarter Kakao Bank posted a record profit of 111.2 billion won (US$81.44 million), up 9% year-on-year.

In late 2019 as the 20-year anniversary of Macau’s return to China was celebrated, there was speculation that Beijing sought to elevate the status of the former Portuguese crown colony from a mere gambling hub to an offshore financial center. While there was never an intention to replace Hong Kong, Beijing seemed to be considering transforming Macau into a secondary offshore financial center for China.

In recent years, several Persian Gulf countries have stepped up their efforts to become fintech hubs in the Middle East. While the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has the largest fintech ecosystem and is the country in the region with the most aggressive digital assets strategy, both Bahrain and Qatar are also keen to embrace digital finance.

Alipay is continuing its cross-border expansion with new partnerships, including one with Mastercard focused on remittances. The company is at the same time steadily developing the Alipay+ platform and has its eye on expanding to Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy and one of the most important in Asia Pacific for fintech. While the various expansion efforts may not seem interconnected at first blush, there is a common theme: Alipay can no longer count on China’s domestic market for high margins and fast growth.

Taiwan’s Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) has historically taken a hands-off approach to cryptocurrency focused on segregating the local digital assets ecosystem from the banking system – which it wants to protect from volatility and risk. As long as banks stay away from digital assets, the FSC is willing to let local crypto exchanges operate with a high degree of autonomy provided they pay their taxes and keep on the straight and narrow. However, Taiwan has since the collapse of FTX been dealing with a surge in crypto-related crime, both money laundering and fraud. Criminals are exploiting unsuspecting investors and taking advantage of limited knowledge of digital assets among the general public, lawmakers and regulators.

Many platform companies have tried to replicate the success of Alipay and Tenpay as super apps, but very few have been successful. The concept has been difficult to execute in Southeast Asia, a culturally diverse region with many different regulatory regimes. Indonesia’s GoTo has always stood out, however, in that its main focus has been on its huge home market and it has avoided overextending itself in the manner of other super apps.

2023 may be remembered as the year that the Web3 bubble burst. Hype about the third iteration of the internet had reached a feverish pitch by early last year, though actual use cases remained limited. Yet amid the highest interest rates in three decades, as well as stubborn inflation, investors started to get cold feet about what is still a nebulous and nascent ecosystem underpinned by technology that many central banks do not trust.

India’s $357.5 billion payments sector has proven challenging for the U.S. tech’s giants. Only Google has established a strong foothold, while Facebook, WhatsApp and Amazon have been unable to grow their market share substantively, despite their respect strengths in social media, messaging and e-commerce.

Hong Kong has historically thrived as a financial center because of its ability to serve as a conduit for capital to and from mainland China. Under the one country, two systems governance model, Hong Kong’s financial system is more open than that of any mainland city, bestowing unique advantages on the territory. Meanwhile, with its capital markets flagging, Hong Kong has sought to use so-called “cornerstone investors” from the mainland – local government entities – to revive its IPO market. Results thus far have been underwhelming, suggesting the need for a more market-oriented approach.

It would be inaccurate to call retail payments on India’s paramount United Payments Interface (UPI) rail a full-fledged duopoly, but Google Pay and Walmart-backed PhonePe do dominate this market with a combined 86% market share. PhonePe currently has a 48.3% share of UPI retail payments, while Google Pay has 37.6%. Paytm has a share of about 9%. No other company even has a full 1% share of the UPI market.

Given the fragmentation that characterizes many parts of Asia Pacific’s fintech sector, consolidation could improve the competitive environment, reducing the need to heavily subsidize customers and allowing firms to invest more in research and development as well as improving the customer experience. Yet across the region, from the most affluent economies to those that are still developing, big-ticket M&A transactions remain few and far between. In the past five years, there have only been a handful, such as the 2020 merger of Gojek and Tokopedia, the National Bank of Australia’s acquisition of the Aussie neobank 86 400 in 2021 and Square’s purchase of Afterpay in 2021.

Although the narrative in the financial industry is that digital is better, that is not always the case. Many rural economies across Asia operate on a largely informal and cash basis. A few factors are driving this. Firstly, there is often a lack of infrastructure to support cashless payments, such as limited internet access or banking services. Secondly, the rural populations often have a general distrust or lack of familiarity with digital payment systems. Additionally, the informal nature of many businesses in rural areas lends itself to cash transactions, which are perceived as more straightforward.

To reach net zero by 2050, Japan aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 46% compared to 2013 levels by 2030. To support that objective, in June 2021, the Japanese government announced its Green Growth Strategy and created a US$15 billion Green Innovation Fund. An additional important part of Japan’s path to net zero will be the world’s first sovereign transition bonds.

South Korea has long had an enthusiastic cryptocurrency investing community. According to the Korea Financial Intelligence Unit (KoFIU), by mid-2024 Korea will have about 6 million crypto investors, equivalent to 11.5% of the population. At the same time, crypto related crime is rising in Korea. While the most infamous example remains Do Kwon’s multi-billion-dollar TerraUSD-Luna fraud, other, smaller scale scams are proliferating, necessitating new regulation to protect investors and both deter and penalize crime. According to the FoFIU, Korean digital asset exchanges flagged 49% more suspicious transactions in 2023 compared to 2022.

In late 2020, Grab and Gojek were said to be close to agreement on a merger. If the deal had gone through, it would have created a juggernaut that probably would have dominated ride hailing and food delivery in most key Southeast Asian markets, while the combined fintech operations would have been formidable. However, GoTo ultimately instead merged with Tokopedia in a deal that likely appealed more to Indonesian regulators. So it is with great interest that 3 ½ years later, we observe reported talks between Grab and GoTo about a merger.

Singapore, a small island nation known for its robust economy and forward-thinking policies, has been making concerted efforts to promote sustainability and address environmental challenges in recent years. The appointment of Ravi Menon, the former Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), as the new sustainability officer, is a notable step towards advancing the country's sustainability agenda. However, while this move signifies Singapore's commitment to sustainability, the country's ability to make a significant global impact remains uncertain.

South Korea’s digital banks are the exception to a rule in East Asia’s advanced economies: They are extremely successful by multiple metrics instead of redundant. While the relative weak digital offerings of incumbent banks in Korea helps explain the phenomenon, it is not the main reason. We believe that South Korea’s three digital banks – Kakao Bank, K Bank and Toss Bank –  have been able to develop truly competitive products, in contrast to their counterparts in the other Asian tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, and gradually have made themselves indispensable to many Korean retail customers.

While the buy now, pay later (BNPL) concept has proven immensely popular with consumers worldwide, developing a sustainable business model as a BNPL focused fintech is a challenging endeavor. For that reason, it is always noteworthy when a BNPL firm reaches the profitability milestone. The Philippines’ Billease, founded in 2017, appears to have done so in 2023.

Despite having significant promise for fintech investment, with one of the world’s largest unbanked populations, Pakistan’s digital finance sector faces mounting challenges as the broader startup ecosystem is finding it hard to attract funding. In the 2023 fiscal year, fintech funding in Pakistan fell 80% to just US$20 million while the number of deals decreased 44% to just eight.

Digital banks have sprung up across Asia in recent years. In many cases, they are having little impact on the overall banking market. Affluent societies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan are not lacking banking options. Even middle-income countries like Malaysia and Thailand have limited financial inclusion needs.

Vietnam is one of the most promising markets for fintech in Southeast Asia, with the payments segment continuing to lead the way. While talk of Vietnam going truly cashless is premature, there is a steady transition to digital payments in the country. Data compiled by the State Bank of Vietnam show that non-cash payment transactions increased by 63.3% in volume and 41.45% in value in January, compared to the same period in 2023. Many Vietnamese banks now have over 90% of their transactions conducted via digital channels.

The Philippines in late March began to blocking access to Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume. The country’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said it received the assistance of the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) to block access to Binance’s website and online trading platform, according to a statement published by the SEC.

In the fourth quarter of 2023, China emerged as the top green bond market globally. Sales of internationally aligned green bonds in China reached US$21.83 billion in the final three months of 2023, up 131% on a quarterly basis, according to the Climate Bonds Initiative data. This was well ahead of the No. 2 market, the U.S., which had green bond sales of US$12.87 billion and No. 3 Germany, which recorded sales of US$7.14 billion.

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