Asia Financial Industry Blog

June 04 2020

Can Temasek help Libra gain momentum?

Written by Matt Fulco

Facebook's virtual currency initiative is getting a much needed boost with the addition of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund Temasek to the Libra Association. Temasek is the first member based in Asia and brings the city-state's fintech prowess to the table. Over the past decade, Singapore has emerged as Asia's preeminent fintech hub. Its government has approached fintech as an enabler of a wider variety of financial services rather than a mere disruptor of the status quo. If Libra is going to succeed, it will need to move in that direction.

Ant Financial has invested $73.5 million in Wave Money (Digital Money Myanmar), a mobile financial services firm that aims to boost financial inclusion in one of Asia's poorest countries. Per-capita GDP is just $1326 in Myanmar, according to the World Bank, and 75% of its 54.5 million people lack a bank account. Ant's investment in Wave follows the Chinese fintech giant's announcement last November that it was planning to raise $1 billion for a fund to invest in Asean and India-based mobile internet startups. Ant is reportedly keen to back more fintechs in those markets.

German neobank unicorn N26 has a well earned reputation for audacity. In July 2019, its co-founder Maximilian Tayenthal famously (or infamously) told The Financial Times that "profitability is not one of our core metrics." If we had to sum up the fintech bubble's ethos in one line, that just might be it. In that same interview, Tayenthal highlighted N26's "deep-pocketed investors," which include Peter Thiel - the smart money, at least based on his bets on Facebook and PayPal. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, investors handed N26 another US$100 million in early May, while its valuation held steady at US$3.5 billion.

On May 17, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) Shanghai branch announced the launch of the Shanghai Fintech Innovation Regulatory Trial, which follows the trial in Beijing last December. In addition, the Shanghai Fintech Industry Alliance (SFIA) was established to encourage innovative fintech programs in the Yangtze River Delta region.

Regulatory sandboxes provide fintech firms a controlled and supervised environment to test innovative products, services, or business models. Fintech innovation is an important driver of growth in the financial industry, especially in China. However, potential risks need to be addressed, notably customer security and data protection. At the same time, regulatory uncertainty could dissuade investors from investing in a company. For their part, meanwhile, regulators need to develop a deep understanding of innovative applications so that they are able to effectively regulate new business models and technologies. Thus, regulators use a regulatory sandbox to achieve a balance between technological innovation and risk prevention, so as to implement more universal policies.

Project qualification and regulator duties

In mid-January, the PBOC announced the first batch of trial applications, including the Internet of Things, APIs, smart tokens and trusted execution environment. Six projects have been approved to join in the trial scheme in Beijing, including API open banking (CITIC aiBank), supply chain finance based on IoT (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China), automatic loans for micro-credit products (Agricultural Bank of China), mobile POS (China UnionPay, Xiaomi and JD digits), Zhiling products managing smart token (CITIC Bank, UnionPay, Duxiaoman payment and Ctrip) and instant online loan (Bank of Ningbo).

In late April, the PBOC extended the second batch of sandbox experimental cities to Shanghai, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Suzhou, as well as the Xiong’an New Area, a much-anticipated new economic zone. The Shanghai trial will guide licensed financial institutions and technology companies to join in the scheme, with the aim to protect consumers’ rights and assist SMEs with maintaining their operations during the COVID-19 crisis. The Shanghai financial regulator said that it would apply “soft regulatory methods” such as information disclosure, product notice, and social supervision. It will also support the local sandbox to connect with other sandboxes around the world.

Although there are similar products widely available on the market, such as instant internet loans issued by banks or internet loan providers, putting a project into the sandbox can allow it to grow freely without falling afoul of existing regulations, supporting the creation of new business models and helping familiarize regulators with them.. However, if a project does not progress fast enough in the sandbox, it may stand little chance of succeeding in the real market.  

The Sandbox experience in the UK and ASEAN

The British government first developed the concept of the "regulatory sandbox." The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) launched its innovation program in 2014 and has supported more than 700 firms to test their innovation with real customers in the live market under controlled conditions. The access to regulatory expertise through the sandbox has reduced the time-to-market for firms and potentially lowered related costs. According to the FCA, 90% of the firms in the first cohort have continued towards a wider market launch. And at least 40% of firms that completed testing in cohort 1 received investment during or following their sandbox test.

Across ASEAN, regulatory sandboxes are also playing their role in managing risk in fintech innovation. In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) launched its fintech sandbox in 2016 to encourage more fintech experimentation and innovation. One company, Inzsure Pte Ltd, was forbidden to continue serving as an insurance broker after the sandbox test.

The Bank of Thailand launched a regulatory sandbox in early 2017 and encouraged innovative companies to develop services and products. In the Thai model, a startup’s innovations stay in the sandbox for a fixed period of 6 to 12 months. Successful businesses after this period can apply for operating licenses.

Sandboxes in Zhejiang and the Greater Bay Area

Hangzhou is to release its Fintech Sandbox rules this week. The detailed establishment plan will be set by Hangzhou Central Sub-branch of PBC, Zhejiang Bureau of CBIRC, Financial Bureau of Zhejiang Province, and Hangzhou Municipal Bureau of Finance.

Meanwhile, in order to accelerate financial and trade integration of the “Greater Bay Area”, the PBOC announced the release of the “Opinions Concerning Financial Support for the Establishment of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area” on May 14. The PBOC produced the Opinions in collaboration with the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE). The options include plans to promote a cross-border regulatory sandbox.

These trial projects form part of China’s Fintech Development Plan (2019-2021). According to internet bank XWBank (XinWang Bank), the fintech regulatory trials will test the best regulatory methods and provide corresponding space and system guarantees for fintech innovations based on the “regulatory sandbox” innovative regulation model.

 

 

As tensions between the U.S. and China flare up in the financial sector, the future of Chinese fundraising in America's capital markets looks uncertain. Hong Kong has benefited, attracting a growing number of Chinese tech IPOs and secondary share listings from juggernauts like Alibaba and JD.com. Another possible winner in the U.S.-China financial tussle could be London, which began operating the London-Shanghai Stock Connect scheme in 2019.

Chinese investment into Indian fintechs is set to slow following New Delhi's decision to restrict foreign investment from countries with which it shares a land border and more carefully scrutinize new portfolio investors from mainland China and Hong Kong. India's immediate reason to target foreign investment is to forestall opportunistic takeovers during the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected about 152,000 and caused more than 4,000 deaths in the subcontinent.

A unicorn cannot thrive on ride hailing alone. That's why Indonesia's Gojek is betting on fintech to bolster its fortunes. Its arch-rival Grab is taking a similar road. Starting with payments, the ride-hailing giants aim to transform themselves into bonafide financial services providers, monetizing customer data by using it to create different digital banking products. Despite the pandemic, Gojek managed to raise another US$1.2 billion in March to support its expansion efforts. Gojek then acquired the Indonesian payments startup Moka and established a tie-up with the fintech Pluang, which offers digital gold investments.

Neobank valuations have long seemed inflated given how few of the banks are profitable. Now the £2 billion valuation of loss-making UK challenger bank Monzo could be adjusted downward as its business slows amid the global economic downturn. Monzo is considered one of Europe's top challenger banks along with Revolut and N26. In mid-May, The Financial Times reported that Monzo is close to reaching a deal with investors that would value it at roughly £1.25 billion, a 40% decrease from the £2 billion valuation it achieved in June 2019. 

At first blush, UBS's bid for a digital bank license in China looks rather ambitious. Beijing doesn't give them out too often. In fact, no foreign lender in China has one. There are just four licensed digital banks in China: Ant Financial's MYBank, Tencent's WeBank, Baidu's AiBank and China Citic Bank. Retail banking has long been the holy grail just out of reach for foreign banks in China. Yet UBS sees a chance to develop a digital-first wealth management business in the country as Beijing prepares legislation that could open up the market to more foreign competition.

Tencent has paid US$300 million for a 5% stake in Australia's Afterpay in a bid to strengthen its global fintech services and expand into smart retail. Afterpay allows shoppers to pay in four installments for purchases online or in retail stores. It claims to have 7.3 million users globally.

The past year has been one of the hardest in memory for Hong Kong, which has been in recession since the fourth quarter of 2019. While the city has contained the coronavirus relatively well, it still faces political turmoil with no end in sight. You wouldn't know that from the state of its IPO market though, which had the most new listings among all stock exchanges in the first quarter and is gathering momentum faster in the second quarter than any other major index.

The Hong Kong IPO market has picked up considerably since early May. Suzhou-based biotech firm Peijia Medical listed on the HKEX on May 15, raising HK$2.3 billion (US$302 million) that it will use to develop its product pipeline of heart valve and vascular repair devices. Peijia Medical's shares jumped 74% in its first day of trading, the best debut performance this year so far for an IPO over US$50 million.

Singapore's Grab reckons it can become the first loss-making ride-hailing firm to reinvent itself as a viable digital bank. So confident is Grab in its fintech endeavor that it has applied for a digital full bank license in Singapore with telecoms giant Singtel. If Grab succeeds as a digital bank, it will be an outlier. China's Didi launched a fintech unit in early 2019, but has yet to make any progress in digital banking. Uber too thinks fintech can help it monetize and created a dedicated division about a year ago. Like Didi's, it has gone nowhere yet. And of course, there's Gojek, an Indonesia-based variant of Grab. It too is dabbling in digital banking. 

The coronavirus pandemic is a day of reckoning for overvalued, overhyped and overextended fintechs. With a "go big or go home" ethos, these firms are finding that amid the virus-induced downturn they may have nowhere to go. Not so for South Korea's Viva Republica, the country's only fintech unicorn, which has been steadily building a business in its home market for nearly a decade. In fact, Viva Republica's mobile banking platform Toss just broke even in April for the first time in its five-year history. That's impressive given that the South Korean economy is in recession. South Korea's GDP contracted contracted 1.4% year-on-year in the first quarter, its worst performance since the 2008-09 global financial crisis.

Myanmar is gradually opening its banking sector to foreign investment in a bid to boost the economy. International lenders see strong potential in the Southeast Asian nation's underdeveloped financial industry. Myanmar has been one of the region's fastest growing economies in recent years. Thus far, it has not been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic either. In April, the Central Bank of Myanmar approved seven Asian banks to enter the country: Taiwan's Cathay United Bank and Mega International Commercial Bank, South Korea's Industrial Bank of Korea, KB Kookmin Bank and Korea Development Bank, Bank of China Hong Kong and Siam Commercial Bank.

Hong Kong's future as a financial center is increasingly clear: It will be a global fundraising hub for Chinese firms, especially in the technology sector. These days, the biggest Hong Kong IPOs are almost all Chinese tech firms, whether the listings are primary or secondary. Non-Chinese tech firms are more likely to go public in New York or London. Following Alibaba's mammoth secondary share listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in November 2019 - which raised US$13 billion - its arch-rival JD.com is reportedly planning a $US3 billion share sale in Hong Kong this year. Alibaba's primary listing is on the NYSE while JD.com is listed on the Nasdaq.

For Europe's cash-burning neobanks, the current economic downturn is a rude awakening. In March as Europe went into lockdown, the unicorn trio of Revolut, Monzo and N26 saw their growth rate drop by 18% to 36% in their home markets (The UK for the former two and Germany for N26), according to Sifted. These three digital banks - among Europe's most highly valued - have prioritized rapid growth over profitability. They have spent heavily to build scale quickly, assuming they will eventually move into the black on solid revenue-per-user figures. If growth suddenly stalls, their business models start to look less solid.

Indonesia's P2P lending sector has been growing fast for several years now, providing a vital credit channel for cash-strapped consumers and SMEs. In February, online lending increased 225% annually to reach US$6.1 billion, 80% of which was in the P2P segment, according to data compiled by the Indonesian government. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit the country of 267 million, plunging it into a technical recession. While several of the largest P2P lenders are weathering the coronavirus pandemic well, others are not so fortunate. The economic fallout from the virus may end up having a more profound impact on the industry's development than regulatory measures enacted last year to reduce compliance failures and protect consumers. 

Malaysia was gradually moving in a cashless direction long before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, forcing it into lockdown from mid-March until early May. The virus just may have accelerated Malaysia's cashless push though, as people out of necessity opted for contactless payments instead of those involving contact. Now, digital wallets are offering new incentives to consumers and merchants, while policymakers are tightening regulations around the use of cash. Malaysia's cashless vision appears to have gotten an unexpected boost from the pandemic.

Internet giants outside of China are trying to create a super app like WeChat, which users rely on widely to chat, buy goods on and offline, and bank. The payments application is the stickiest: Once WeChat became a preferred digital wallet, it had a captive audience for a much wider selection of banking services. For Facebook, which is shut out of China, India offers the chance to build a super app. There are more users of both Facebook and its messaging app WhatsApp in India than anywhere else on earth. Facebook has moved one step closer to that goal following its US$5.7 billion investment for a 9.9% stake in India's telecoms giant Jio, a subsidiary of the juggernaut Reliance Industries.

A growing number of global fintechs are eager to tap China's growing remittances business, the world's second largest after India. Given China's strict controls of money flows, the right local partner is important for gaining access to the market. Otherwise, regulatory hurdles are tough to surmount. In April, Singapore-based digital cross-border payments platform Nium announced it would partner with Geoswift, a counterpart headquartered in Hong Kong that specializes in clearing payments in and out of the Chinese mainland.

The economic downturn fomented by the coronavirus pandemic has been a rude awakening for cash-burning fintech startups. They and their backers are finding that there's a price to pay for championing breakneck growth over profitability. In contrast, fintechs with solid balance sheets, like London-based digital money transfer firm TransferWise (profitable for three years in a row), are poised to pursue targeted expansion. Tapping resilient demand for its cross-border payments services, TransferWise recently inked a partnership with China's Alipay and expanded to the United Arab Emirates.

South Korea is eager to introduce more digital applications into its financial system, but unsure how far it wants to go with digital currency. That goes for not just crypto, but central bank digital currency as well. For now, payments is one fintech segment in which South Korean tech giants are poised to launch new applications.

Libra is the most visible profile prong of Facebook's fintech offensive, but it may not be the most important. Not for now, anyway. U.S. officials and regulators remain circumspect about Facebook's digital currency project. Facebook has a long way to go before it wins their trust. In Asia, Facebook has a seemingly simpler task: Roll out the digital wallet of WhatsApp to monetize its large regional user base, concentrated in India and Indonesia. That's proving to be difficult too though.

In every crisis, there are opportunities. While many investors are tightening their belts during the coronavirus pandemic, some are opening their wallets. Now is the time to double down on certain investments. Take Australia's Airwallex as an example. The Melbourne-based cross-border payments platform closed a mammoth US$160 million (A$250 million) funding round in April, bringing its valuation to US$1.8 billion from US$1 billion. Less than half of the capital was raised in January, according to Australian Financial Review. Airwallex managed to raise the rest amid the pandemic's surge.

Xiaomi is the first Chinese smartphone maker to foray into digital banking. The Beijing-based firm secured a digital banking license in Hong Kong last year and began a trial period in late March. It also applied for a digital wholesale bank (DWB) license in Singapore, which allows the holder to provide non-retail banking services.

The Philippines has long been one of the most promising Asian markets for fintechs. The archipelago of more than 7,641 islands has a population of nearly 107 million, second only to Indonesia among Asean countries. Nearly 70% of adults in the Philippines are unbanked, while smartphone penetration in the country is growing steadily. Given the Philippines' geography - with many people living far from retail banks - and development stage, fintech adoption can drive financial inclusion.

Digital banking had been growing steadily in the Philippines prior to the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic hit the country in early March, resulting in the government implementing a lockdown in the metro Manila area beginning from the middle of that month. Some banks have seen online banking grow more quickly since the restrictions were imposed than previously. Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC) posted a 117% increase in new sign-ups for its online banking services from March 17-26 according to fintechnews.sg. RCBC also recorded a 633% increase in the number of times its cardless ATM withdrawal function was used during that period.

Finally after all the discussions about China's central bank digital currency, we're getting close to the actual launch as the platform goes into pilot.

As it turns out, Facebook's much hyped Libra cryptocurrency project is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Libra 2.0, rolled out in mid-April, is modest in its ambitions. Gone is the concept of a global digital currency to potentially rival the dollar and evade regulatory oversight. Instead, Facebook wants to launch a series of digital coins backed by fiat currencies. The proposal includes the idea to build a "digital composite" of some of the coins for cross-border transactions and use in countries with no virtual currencies. Of equal importance, Libra will not be decentralized and "permissionless." That was never going to fly with central bankers or politicians, who don't want to deal with Bitcoin on a much larger scale.

To be sure, many crypto diehards are crestfallen. Even those who are not fans of Facebook liked the idea of an anonymous, decentralized digital currency that might one day challenge fiat currency hegemony. If Facebook could have pulled off such a project, crypto in an iteration close to how Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakomoto (a pseudonym) imagined it would have finally broken into the mainstream global financial system. When Nakomoto launched Bitcoin in 2009, he sought to reduce our reliance on centralized financial institutions to transfer funds, and instead foster anonymous peer-to-peer transfers on the blockchain.

2020 started well for Australia's neobanks. Deposit bases were growing quickly. Some Australian neobanks were on track to reach their deposit goals well ahead of their sales forecasts. That was before the coronavirus became a global pandemic. The virus has spread like wildfire globally in the past few months, sickening 2.5 million people and causing more than 170,000 fatalities. Australia has not become an epicenter of the outbreak, but it has still had to contend with thousands of cases and entered a strict lockdown on March 23. It is highly likely that the Australian economy will soon enter recession for the first time since 1991.

Under this scenario, neobanks may face a tough uphill climb. Grim economic conditions could affect Australians' willingness to switch their primary banking provider or even open a new account with a different provider.

Hong Kong issued eight digital banking licenses more than a year ago, but just one of the new virtual banks is fully operational, ZhongAn Insurance-backed ZA Bank. ZA Bank began operations this month after completing a mandatory trial in March. Three other Hong Kong digital banks recently began trials: Ant Financial's Ant Bank, Xiaomi and AMTD's Airstar Bank and Standard Chartered-backed Mox Bank. The other four Hong Kong digital banks have not announced when they will launch trials.

Initially, it seemed Hong Kong's virtual banks had arrived in the right place and at the right time. The city has plenty of banking options, but innovation among incumbents has been limited in recent years. Retail customers are eager for new digitally forward banking platforms. But last year's protests and the coronavirus outbreak have delivered a punishing blow to Hong Kong's economy. The city fell into recession well before the global economic malaise brought on by the coronavirus. Hong Kong's digital banks have struggled to gain momentum under these circumstances.

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