More than four years after the financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore announced they would allow digital banks, the online lenders have failed to disrupt those respective markets. They have opened plenty of customer accounts, but their deposit bases remain modest, as does their addressable market.
Elsewhere in the region, digital banks have larger potential markets, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines. Still, stiff competition and a lack of product differentiation mean that it is often necessary to subsidize customers to secure temporary loyalty. Some of these digibanks are also constrained by the focus of their parent companies on other businesses unrelated to financial services, like ride-hailing and food delivery.
The only countries in Asia where digital banks have found the secret sauce are China and South Korea, which can be attributed to both the innovative business models of online lenders and the unique market characteristics of these two countries.
China as a digital banking pioneer
In 2023, China’s fintech market is both mature and constrained by a lingering crackdown on Big Tech. But rewind to roughly a decade earlier and it was a hotbed of digital financial innovation. China’s preeminent platform companies Alibaba and Tencent, having found success in e-commerce and gaming, respectively, pushed aggressively into digital financial services with implicit support from regulators that supported the financial inclusion benefits and the efficiency gains from the widespread digitization of payments. They capitalized on weak digital offerings from incumbents, incumbents who often chose to work with the tech giants in consumer lending – when regulators still permitted it, of course.
In 2019, the last year before the pandemic and China’s tech crackdown (both of which have weighed on earnings), Tencent-backed WeBank posted a net profit of $565 million and Alibaba-backed MYbank recorded net income of $180 million. Both online lenders first became profitable in 2016, about a year after being founded.
Amid China’s tech crackdown and the country’s economic travails, MYbank has pivoted to supporting social welfare and rural entrepreneurship – and has also joined the digital yuan pilot program. WeBank has also joined the digital RMB initiative.
While it remains to be seen if either of China’s digital banks can ascend to their previous zenith, their leveraging of the respective Alibaba and Tencent ecosystems, surging smartphone adoption and strong customer demand for digital financial products has proven to be a winning formula.
First mover’s advantage
Besides China, South Korea is the only other Asian country where digital banks have reached profitability and seem able to stay there. Kakao Bank is by far the country’s most profitable online lender, benefiting from its super-app approach with the ubiquitous Kakao Talk messaging app at its core. Like WeChat in China, Kakao Talk is a way of life in Korea. When Kakao Bank launched in 2017, it had a ready potential market of millions of Kakao Talk users – who are now estimated at around 47.6 million in South Korea – a majority of the population of 52 million.
Kakao Bank can be thought of as the first mover among Korea digibanks, and it only needed two years to reach profitability. It exploited the lack of competition to grow briskly while simultaneously eschewing the incautious – and expensive – international expansion we have seen from Western digibanks like Revolut.
In the first three quarters of 2023, Kakao achieved a record-high net profit of 279.3 billion won ($214.12 million) thanks to increased lending to borrowers attracted by its low-interest rates.
In the first nine months of the year, Kakao’s deposit balance also increased from 34.6 trillion won to 45.7 trillion won, a growth of 11.1 trillion won, or 32.1%.
K Bank is another profitable digital bank in South Korea, though its business model seems to be less sustainable than Kakao’s given its reliance on cryptocurrency. In fact, K Bank had to suspend operations a few years ago due to capitalization problems and when it re-emerged it inked a deal with leading Korean crypto exchange Upbit in which the exchange’s customers use K Bank for deposits. Since then, K Bank’s deposits have surged.
K Bank recorded a profit of 13.2 billion won in the third quarter, down significantly from 25.6 billion won during the same period in 2022. K Bank attributed the fall in profit to one-off provisions.
There could be trouble ahead for K Bank though. Korean media recently reported that a remarkable 70% of its deposits are tied to cryptocurrency. Since K Bank has about 15 trillion won (US$11.5 billion) in deposits, more than US$8 billion of the total is linked to crypto. What makes this worrisome is that the rules are murky when it comes to protecting customer deposits in the event of say, a run, on the crypto exchange Upbit – or a serious hack.
More exceptions to the rule?
Looking ahead, we do not expect many other digital banks in Asia will be able to replicate the success of WeBank and MYbank in China or Kakao and K Bank in Korea. Incumbent banks have entrenched strategic market positions in both Hong Kong and Singapore, and while there may be niche market opportunities in segments like wealth management for non-ultra high net worth individuals, overall, low-hanging fruit is scarce.
In Southeast Asia, both Indonesia and the Philippines present ample market opportunities, but competition is fierce, while in well-banked Malaysia and Thailand it is unclear how much of an opportunity there really is. What we have observed in Southeast Asia thus far is that large conglomerates are teaming up with platform companies like Sea GroupSE +1.5%, Grab and GoTo as well as Alibaba and Kakao, pooling their significant capital and resources to pursue strategic long-term plays. These juggernauts can afford to be patient and burn a little cash since they are in it for the long run.
Noticeably absent from any of this activity, with very few exceptions, are pure-play digibanking startups, and we expect it will remain that way. In Asia, it seems that digital banking is primarily a means for established tech companies – or telecoms in the case of K Bank, which is backed by KT Corporation – to expand into financial services and thus find new avenues for growth.
It is hard to believe China used to be a hub for Bitcoin mining. While the crackdown on mining activity has been ongoing for several years now, things got real in August when a Chinese government official was sentenced to life in prison for illegitimate business operations related to running an RMB 2.4 billion (US$329 million) Bitcoin mining enterprise and for unrelated charges of corruption. Maybe it was the corruption that landed the official, Xiao Yi, such a stiff sentence from the Intermediate People’s Court of Hangzhou, but regardless, this type of precedent will probably be enough to deter most people in China from trying their luck at crypto mining.
Ant Group has an ambitious international expansion strategy with Asia Pacific at its core. However, one of the largest markets in the region is increasingly not part of Ant’s vision. Suffice to say that when Ant was ramping up expansion in Asia a few years ago, it did not foresee geopolitical tensions with India impacting its investments in the subcontinent, a market the Chinese tech giant once saw as very promising. But the business environment for Chinese companies in India is likely to remain highly challenging for the foreseeable future.
Despite headwinds, there are reasons for optimism about fintech funding in Southeast Asia, a new report by UOB, PwC Singapore and the Singapore FinTech Association (SFA) finds. While funding has dropped precipitously from its peak pandemic heyday, there are still some bright spots, including growing investor interest in green fintechs, the enduring attractiveness of the Singaporean and Indonesian markets, and an abundance of strong early-stage startups.
At the Singapore FinTech Festival last week, IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva made the case for central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) in her keynote address. She succinctly highlighted most of the key reasons central bankers like the concept of a digital fiat currency: the potential for improved financial inclusion where it is most needed, replacing cash, enhanced efficiency, speed and transparency in cross-border payments.
Japan’s stock market rally seems to have staying power: The Nikkei 225 climbed 0.52% to reach its highest level since July 3 on November 24 while the TOPIX advanced 0.54% to end at 2,390.94. Investors appear to have been reacting to inflation data suggesting that the Bank of Japan will exit its ultra-loose monetary policy sooner rather than later. Data compiled by Goldman Sachs show that the TOPIX had risen 24% in 2023 as November 10 in local currency terms, its fourth-best annual performance since 2001. The Japanese benchmark has significantly outperformed the S&P500 Index of U.S. stocks and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index.
By several metrics, GCash is the most successful Philippine fintech. As of May, it claimed to have 81 million users (in a country of about 114 million) while the company said last year that it achieved profitability three years ahead of schedule. That said, GCash is not resting on its laurels and is stepping up both international expansion and a push into the B2B market.
The market opportunity for digital banks in Hong Kong has always been open to interpretation, and their balance sheets (with a few exceptions) 4.5 years after the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) announced it would allow online lenders reflects that reality. The Greater Bay Area could offer some additional opportunities, but like most of China, it has achieved a reasonably strong level of financial inclusion. For these reasons, as we observe Hong Kong-based WeLab launch a digital bank in Indonesia, we think that it has a more promising business strategy than some of its competitors. To be sure, Indonesia has increasing digital banking competition, but a large segment of the population remains unbanked and underbanked.
In August, the China Securities Regulatory Commission unveiled some potential modest market reforms to strengthen investor confidence and trading in Chinese capital markets. These measures included extension to trading hours for the country’s stock and bond markets, lower transaction fees for brokers and the encouragement of share buybacks. While these measures are welcome and could help boost China’s capital markets, there are underlying economic and political issues that need to be addressed if China’s stock market is to recover definitively.
It was not long ago that we were wondering if the Melborne-founded and Singapore-headquartered fintech unicorn Airwallex had scaled back its ambitions, which historically have been lofty. It is safe to say that is not the case. Indeed, Airwallex continues to push into new markets aggressively, including in the past six months both Israel and Mexico.
South Korea is unique in that the majority of its digital banks are profitable. While Kakao Bank generates the most headlines, and has been successful in many regards, its competitor K Bank is the one we find the most intriguing. The reason is that K Bank, majority owned by the telecoms giant KT Corporation, was dogged by financial travails in its early years and even had to pause operations for a while. When the digital lender re-emerged, it was powered by a tie-up with South Korea’s leading cryptocurrency exchange Upbit. While regulatory intentions were good in this case, building a bank on the foundation of crypto seems at the very least to be a bit risky – and it brings into question K Bank’s overall business model.
Across Southeast Asia, the business models of platform companies are being put to the test – and the results are still inconclusive. We can appreciate that a focus on quarterly earnings may obscure positive long-term trends – and Sea did not have the best quarter – but it is undeniable that the much-heralded ecosystem business model that emerged in the past few years could have some fundamental problems. In the case of Sea Group, it has a promising digital financial services business that grew out of its earlier ventures in e-commerce and gaming, but the latter two businesses are struggling. We still like their odds better than ride hailing and food delivery, but Sea has figure out a way to turn them around and revamp the synergies that drove the company’s share price to an apex of almost US$367 in October 2021. It has since lost about 90% of its value and trades around US$37.
Not all Southeast Asian platform companies are created equal, nor do they perform equally. Unlike some of its counterparts, Bukalapak has never swung for the fences. Rather, it has focused on its substantial home market of Indonesia and building a digital services ecosystem for Southeast Asia’s largest economy that increasingly features more financial products. The strategy appears to be bearing fruit, and Bukalapak has recorded seven straight quarters of adjusted EBITDA profitability.
We have been writing for a while now about the potential for credit cards to capture market share in India, irrespective of the trajectory of buy, now pay later (BNPL) and e-wallets. In a nutshell, there is nothing quite like a credit card when it comes to cashless payments: the potential for rewards, the potentially significant credit limit, and in some cases, the prestige of holding a specific card. And then there is the bonus that paying off the balance promptly helps one build a solid credit profile over time. Even though India’s credit card penetration is estimated at just 5.5%, in absolute terms, that’s still about 77 million people because the subcontinent’s population is 1.4 billion. So even at that low level of penetration, India has a larger credit card market than all of France or the UK.
The plot continues to thicken in one of the largest money laundering cases in Singapore’s history. Complicating matters is the sensitivity of certain aspects of the case, given the large number of ethnic suspects with ties to China and the multiple banks both local and international ensnared in the ongoing investigations.
Grab, founded in 2012, hit a milestone in the third quarter: It recorded its first profit on an adjusted EBITDA basis. The Singapore-based platform company is better known for burning almost unfathomable amounts of cash in a race to build scale, so adjusted EBITDA of US$29 million is a significant achievement. The company’s revenue rose 61% on an annual basis to US$615 million while its losses fell to US$99 million. The question now is if Grab has turned a corner decisively and is headed for long-term profitability in the vein of Alibaba, Tencent and Amazon, or if it is more likely to struggle to stay out of the red like Uber and Lyft.
Constant is the speculation about how China’s central bank digital currency (CBDC) will play a game-changing role in international financial flows, so it was not a big surprise when Bloomberg in August published a report that suggested the Beijing-backed mBridge project (which also includes Hong Kong, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates) might launch even sooner than expected – by year-end – and was on its way to disrupting the dollar’s long-established hegemony. Cutting through the hyperbole is an update on the project from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) that suggests mBridge is progressing, but that commercialization remains a work in progress.
What happened to that expected recovery of Hong Kong’s IPO market? It’s now November, and we’re still waiting for it. Throughout the year, analysts have been forecasting that it would just be a matter of time, that as mainland China’s economy fully recovered from pandemic-related lockdowns, activity in Hong Kong’s capital markets would pick up accordingly. Yet a new report from KPMG shows that in the first three quarters of the year, the Hong Kong IPO market concluded 44 listings that raised 24.6 billion HKD (US$3.14 billion), down 15% in terms of proceeds and 65% in deal count over the first nine months of 2022.
Observing that GoTo managed to reduce its losses in the third quarter, we are wondering to what extent this platform company created from a merger of Indonesia’s two most prominent tech startups is on the right track. Its stock hit a 52-week nadir of 54 rupiah on October 16, but since then, boosted by investor enthusiasm about its quarterly earnings, has risen to more than 40% to 76 rupiah.
Some incumbent banks may be slow to digitize, but apparently not the big commercial lenders in Thailand. We have been tracking the transformative digitization of Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) for several years now and are intrigued to see that another large Thai lender is adopting an aggressive digital-first strategy. Given its humble roots as Thai Farmers Bank (established in 1945 with registered capital of 5 million baht), Kasikornbank, commonly known as KBank, has come a long way. As Thailand’s second largest commercial bank today, it should be observed with great interest as it accelerates digitization efforts and invests in new segments of financial services.
Web3 investment has been steadily falling since late 2021 as investors take a step back from the mercurial cryptocurrency ecosystem. In the third quarter of this year, investment in Web3 startups fell for the seventh straight quarter, data from Crunchbase show.
Singapore-based fintech startup YouTrip is a now officially an anomaly: It managed to raise US$50 million in what is a relatively challenging period for fintech funding given high interest rates, an uncertain global economy and persistent geopolitical tensions in different parts of the world. In an interview with Nikkei Asia, CEO Caecilia Chu said YouTrip, together with a local financial partner, would launch its multicurrency wallet in Malaysia in a few months’ time while simultaneously beefing up its presence in Singapore and Thailand.
After years of losing money, Paytm has turned things around in the past two years. A disappointing IPO on the eve of a long-overdue slowdown in inflated tech stocks and valuations was a wake-up call for the company to focus on profitability instead of growth in myriad verticals. In the June quarter, India’s most prominent fintech showed some promising signs, especially in terms of loan growth, but it also faces rising competition and lacks a banking license that would allow it to lend directly to customers.
The fragmentation of e-wallets in Asia poses a challenge for any company trying to build a payments rail that can work smoothly throughout the region. With the exception of China, where a duopoly of Alipay and Tenpay still prevails, most Asian countries have dozens, if not tens of dozens, of digital payment methods. This holds true for the richest countries in the region like Japan and Singapore, as well as developing nations in South and Southeast Asia. For this reason, we are carefully observing the progress of Ant Group’s Alipay+ initiative in the region to see if it can achieve a breakthrough.
South Korea’s three digibanks have been unusually successful given the high rate of failure, or at least underperformance, in this segment of financial services. The reasons for their success are many, from innovative business models to the weak digital offerings of incumbents, but support from regulators has also been crucial. We will now find out just how much confidence regulators have in these upstarts as they face rising delinquency rates that are a natural result of their focus on non-top tier borrowers.
2023 may end up being a year that many fintechs want to put behind them. With interest rates high, inflation stubborn and the global economy a tad wobbly, it has not been the best year for fintech funding, even in Asia Pacific, where so much of the fintech development story has been taking place in recent years. That said, funding has been more resilient in India than in many other markets, especially in the third quarter of the year.
What about that UK banking license? That’s the question on Revolut’s mind and many others as the UK’s preeminent fintech unicorn nears the end of another calendar year without the ability to offer government-insured deposits, business loans, consumer loans and so on in its home market. It is sometimes overlooked that for all of Revolut’s swagger on the international stage, the UK remains its largest market, and that regulators in other jurisdictions from Australia to India to the U.S. are watching and waiting to see if the UK grants Revolut the license or not.
There has been a fair bit of buildup to the launch of the Philippines’ sovereign wealth fund, the Maharlika Investment Fund, which is supposed to happen by the end of the year. It is a personal initiative of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. which he seems to believe can help his country advance some of its key development goals. So we have to say were surprised when it was reported last week that the sovereign wealth fund would be suspended.
Having built one of the only successful super apps outside of China, with both a thriving digital bank and payments platform, Kakao has decided it is time to expand overseas. Its first foreign market is Thailand, where it is partnering with Siam Commercial Bank (SCB). Next up is Indonesia, where Kakao is partnering with a couple of heavyweight companies on a digital banking venture.
It was not so long ago that Chinese companies often chose the United States’ capital markets when they sought to list overseas. U.S. stock exchanges offer Chinese companies unparalleled access to a pool of global investors, as well as the prestige that comes with being listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or Nasdaq. In addition, being able to cash out in dollars is an attractive element of a U.S. listing. However, geopolitical tensions have made listing in the U.S. more challenging for Chinese companies, while Chinese regulators are tightening oversight of market debuts outside of China, and it is unclear if and when the situation will change.
In September 2021, Ascend Money became Thailand’s first fintech unicorn, achieving a US$1.5 billion following a US$150 million funding round. While we have learned to take fintech valuations with a few grains of salt, Ascend Money does have a strong ecosystem built on its TrueMoney wallet, which says it serves more than 50,000 users through its platform and 88,000 “agents.” The TrueMoney platform and the strategic investment that Ascend Money has from Ant Group could give it an edge as it expands internationally.
India has reportedly launched the next phase of its wholesale digital rupee pilot, according to the Indian media MoneyControl. The digital rupee is now being tested in the call money market where banks borrow from or lend to each other for the short term, usually one day, at market-determined rates, anonymous sources told MoneyControl. The sources added that nine banks participating in this pilot were part of the wholesale pilot of government securities, which was launched on November 1, 2022, to settle secondary market transactions in government securities.
With Japanese stocks up 20% since March and the market showing no sign of flagging, one wonders if there is a fundamental change underway in the capital markets of the world’s third largest economy. Unlike in recent years past, Japan’s stock market has in 2023 produced the best returns of any major advanced economy, buoyed by a more pro-shareholder approach by companies and regulators. At the same time, investors are waking up to the opportunities Japan offers now that they are no longer starry eyed about China.
In April, The Ken reported that one of the reasons Malaysia’s digital banks have been slow to launch is that they have had trouble finding the right people to run the new businesses. Apparently, finding talent with the right mix of technological acumen and understanding of the banking business is not so easy in Malaysia – perhaps because the country has been less of a hub for tech startups than some other countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, in early September, Grab’s GXBank-Berhad became the first of Malaysia’s online banks to launch.