Asia Financial Industry Blog

November 19 2019

Alibaba's Hong Kong IPO is back on

Written by Matt Fulco

Alibaba's secondary share listing in Hong Kong is back on track and now set for late November. The Chinese e-commerce giant eschewed Hong Kong for New York when it first went public in 2014, to the disapproval of some in Chinese officialdom. The Hangzhou-based company has been planning a secondary listing in Hong Kong to fund large-scale expansion plans. Those plans were put on hold amidst the worst political instability to hit Hong Kong since the late 1960s.

While the protests have yet to abate, Alibaba is ready to go ahead with its Hong Kong IPO anyway, with a probable date of November 26. The IPO is expected to raise up to $13.4 billion, analysts say. A draft prospectus reviewed by Reuters shows that Alibaba plans to use the money to invest in e-travel group Fliggy, Ele.me, an online delivery and local services platform, and YouKu, a Chinese variation of YouTube.

There is no doubt that fintech has boosted financial inclusion in China. Affordable banking services provided by the digital finance duopoly of Alibaba and Tencent have helped millions of individual Chinese and small businesses gain access to credit that traditional lenders would never have extended to them. In Tencent's case, its WeBank has performed a rare feat for a fintech: It has quickly become profitable (in under five years), built tremendous scale and largely escaped the ire of regulators.

India is the world's largest recipient of remittances. In 2018, Indians overseas sent home a record US$79 billion, according to the World Bank. The majority of remittances to India originate in the wealthy Gulf states of the Middle East, where there are many Indian workers. The No. 2 source of remittances to the subcontinent is the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Canada, Hong Kong, and Australia.

Given the size of India's remittances market, there is a significant opportunity for fintechs, especially as the typical cost of sending remittances remains high. Fintechs who could offer remittances on the blockchain for a fraction of the fee of banks or other transfer services could tap a potentially lucrative market.

Policymakers in Beijing have long chafed at the preeminence of the U.S. dollar in the global financial system. Before the presidency of Donald Trump, it was something that they grudgingly accepted. After all, they weren't ready to let the renminbi float and open their capital account. And they still aren't. Both actions would be necessary to challenge the dollar's dominance as a global reserve currency.

Yet, amidst rising tensions with Washington that are creeping into the financial sector, Beijing is moving to challenge "dollar hegemony" in other ways. Finding a way to circumvent Washington's control over global financial flows is a priority. In late October, Russian media reported that China, Russia and India have decided to work together to develop an alternative to the SWIFT interbank messaging network that undergirds international finance. While Belgium-based SWIFT is independent, the U.S.'s rivals - and even some its allies - say that Washington has too much influence over the organization.

It can be hard to cut through the hype surrounding Facebook's cryptocurrency project and evaluate it objectively. Facebook champions the Libra stablecoin as a powerful vehicle for financial inclusion which would be easily accessible to its many users in developing countries without a bank account. To advance the Libra project, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has been playing up its nationalist credentials. If U.S. regulators fail to greenlight Libra, then Washington will cede digital currency ground to Beijing, he says.

"China is moving quickly to launch a similar idea in the coming months," Zuckerberg told the House Financial Services Committee in October. "If America doesn't innovate, our financial leadership is not guaranteed."

Hong Kong's major banks have long enjoyed high profits. Competition has been limited. A few heavyweights dominate the sector: HSBC, Standard Chartered, Bank of East Asia, Hang Seng. With the arrival of virtual banks earlier this year, the market was already on the cusp of a sea change. Retail banks realized that they would have to up their game to stay dominant. Then political turmoil swept over the former British colony in June, bringing into question its viability as a global financial center.

Choppy waters lie ahead for Hong Kong's banks, which have been battered by protests, the Sino-U.S. trade war and the slowing Chinese economy. It's unlikely that Hong Kong banks' profits per employee will remain higher than any other market. That was what Citigroup analysts found in 2018, a recent Wall Street Journal report noted.

Misunderstanding of China's blockchain aspirations remain widespread. Virtual-currency enthusiasts once thought the Middle Kingdom would be crypto central. They were wrong: China doesn't want to be a hub for all things crypto, but it does want to harness the underlying blockchain technology to boost its technological prowess, improve the integrity of supply chains and overcome bottlenecks across many industries - notably the financial services sector.

It was with those goals in mind that Chinese President Xi Jinping recently called for a larger role for blockchain in China's economic development. According to state-run Xinhua, Xi urged "deep integration of blockchain with the real economy," which he said could help SMEs get better access to credit as well as strengthen risk management in banking and the supervision of government agencies. He further said that China has a "solid blockchain foundation" and called for the nation to accelerate the development of blockchain technology and strengthen related basic research.

Hong Kong has had a tough year. Following more than four months of protests, the city's economy slipped into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter, contracting 3.2% in the July-September period compared to the quarter ended June 2019. The political instability shows no signs of easing either.

Yet, Hong Kong has led the world in initial public offerings since early September. Data compiled by Bloomberg show first-time share sales on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange are US$7.9 billion since September 1, ahead of the Nasdaq's US$7 billion and the New York Stock Exchange's US$3 billion. Anheuser-Buschs's US$5.8 billion IPO of its Asian unit accounted for the lion's share of new Hong Kong listings.

Indonesia just might have the world's hottest P2P lending sector at the moment. We haven't seen this kind of growth in P2P since before a series of huge scams marked the beginning of the end for China's P2P market. From January to May, the Indonesia P2P sector expanded 44% to reach IDR 41 trillion (US$2.92 billion), according to Indonesia's Financial Services Authority (OJK). That healthy growth represents a moderation from the 645% increase in the year to December 2018.

The Philippines is the world's No. 4 remittance market and growing fast, offering ample opportunities for fintechs. In August, Filipinos overseas remitted $2.88 billion, up 4.6% over $2.76 billion received in the same period a year ago and the highest since May, according to government data. About 10 million Filipinos work abroad. Remittances are the Philippines’ top source of foreign exchange income. A steady inflow of dollars into the Philippines from overseas helps protect the economy from external shocks, analysts say. 

At present, banks and transfer services dominate the Philippines' remittance business. The Philippines received US$34 billion in remittances last year (behind Mexico, China and India), according to the World Bank. Imagine if fintechs could capture even a modest portion of that business.

When it comes to financial reform in China, the devil's not in the details. It's in the implementation. When Beijing wants to enact change in the financial system, it can do so quickly. Consider the rise of fintech in China over the past five years. It's transformed the Chinese financial system. Unfortunately, foreign firms largely missed out on that opportunity. Paypal, who just got approval to enter China, is arriving a bit late to the party. Never mind that, say some observers. If only Paypal can get 3-5% of that market of 1.4 billion people, it will have a sizable business, they say. If only.

That brings us to the latest chapter in the Chinese financial reform saga. In early October, China’s securities regulator announced it would scrap foreign ownership limits on fund management companies from April 2020. Global asset managers would very much like increased access to China's massive $2 trillion retail fund market. This would seem to be their chance.

Singapore is expecting sub 1% economic growth this year, but you wouldn't know it from the city-state's booming fintech sector. Research firm Accenture estimates that investors sank $735 million into Singapore fintechs from January-September, up 69% year-on-year and surpassing the $642 million for all of 2018. The top areas for investments are payments (34%), lending (20%) and insurtech (17%).

Korea's Financial Services Commission (FSC) surprised some observers by rejecting all of the applicants for a virtual banking license earlier this year. The FSC had different reasons for saying no to the applicants. In the case of Toss, a peer-to-peer money transfer app owned by Korean fintech unicorn Viva Republica, the FSC worried about the ownership structure of Toss Bank and its funding capabilities.

Since its return to China in 1999, the former Portuguese colony of Macau has become the world's gambling capital, with a casino industry far larger than Las Vegas's. Macau's huge gaming sector has helped the territory maintain strong economic growth over the past two decades, even during the global financial crisis of 2008-09. However, reliance on gaming exposes Macau to an unusually high level of financial crime risk. Despite government efforts to tackle the problem, Macau remains at high risk for money laundering.

Given Macau's money laundering travails, it may come as a surprise that the territory has plans to launch a stock exchange. After all, strong regulatory compliance is a necessity for any city with ambitions to become a financial center. It goes hand in hand with the rule of law. Neither Hong Kong nor Singapore could have become financial centers without both of these attributes. Nevertheless, He Xiaojun, director of Guangdong Province's Financial Supervision and Management Authority, said in October that Macau had submitted a plan to set up an RMB-based stock exchange to the central government. There is hope that the stock exchange will become “the Nasdaq of the People’s Republic of China," he was quoted as saying by TDM Chinese Radio.

India fintech sensation Paytm plans to reduce its losses by 1/3 to $400 million annually, according to The Times of India. Softbank and Alibaba-backed Paytm is India's most valuable tech startup with a $10 billion valuation, but has been burning cash at a torrid clip for years, like many of its peers across the region. In the 2019 fiscal year, Paytm lost a whopping $600 million, up 300% over the same period a year earlier.

Many of the most prominent fintechs are known for sky-high valuations and red ink on their balance sheets. There's a disconnect between what private investors deem the companies are worth and their actual financial performance. The biggest challenger banks in Europe, such as N26, Revolut and Monzo, are unprofitable. The same goes for Paytm, a payments bank that is India's most valuable tech startup. Ditto for Grab and Go-Jek, the Southeast Asian Uber clones which are trying to reinvent themselves as digital banks.

In a sign of increasing tensions between the U.S. and China in the financial sector, the Nasdaq is tightening scrutiny of small Chinese companies' IPOs. These firms usually raise most of their capital from Chinese investors rather than American ones. The shares of these companies tend to trade thinly once they've gone public, limiting their appeal to large institutional investors - on whose interests the Nasdaq focuses.

In Asia's red-hot fintech scene, Taiwan flies largely under the radar. That's largely because no unicorns have yet emerged among its fintech startups, or any other startups for that matter. Taiwan did introduce a fintech regulatory sandbox in late 2017 and more recently established regulations for security token offerings (STOs), but the policies have yet to activate the fintech market. Fintech investment in Taiwan remains limited, especially compared to regional hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong.

October 18 2019

Fintech in name only

Written by

Ardent fintech investors swear that in fact, there is no fintech bubble. Their reasoning is simple: Traditional financial services is ripe for disruption, perhaps a bit like physical retail in the fledgling days of e-commerce. Demand for alternative digital-first banking services is real. In some emerging markets, banking levels are so low that fintechs have a chance swoop in and gain a foothold from the ground up.

If there ever was a market that could benefit from open banking, it would be Hong Kong. A small group of powerful incumbents has long dominated retail banking in the former British colony, leaving consumers frustrated with the lack of options. Data from Goldman Sachs show that HSBC, Standard Chartered, Bank of China and Hang Seng Bank account for 2/3 of retail banking loans in Hong Kong. Those four banks are even more dominant in the credit card and retail mortgage markets.

Among Asian banks, Singapore's DBS is among the most active in fintech. It has a partnership with Indonesian ride-hailing giant Go-Jek, a fintech accelerator in Hong Kong and a tech-driven Innovation Plan covering machine learning, cloud computing and API development. It has thus far created a platform of 155 APIs across roughly 20 categories. Given that DBS is well ahead of the curve when it comes to financial technology development, should it be concerned about Citibank's recent deals in its neighborhood?

Recent reports in the U.S. media have described the Trump administration mulling a plan that would involve the delisting of Chinese firms from U.S. stock exchanges. The Trump administration has denied the reports, while political heavyweights such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have dismissed the idea outright. McConnell told CNBC that the Treasury Department made clear it does not favor delisting Chinese firms from U.S. stock exchanges.

The arrival of open banking in Australia comes at an opportune time. Virtual banks are fast setting up shop amidst widespread demand for more choices in consumer banking. Consumers, while not dissatisfied with existing banks, would like better digital-first options. For their part, regulators are keen to boost compliance across the industry. The findings of the Financial Services Royal Commission did not cast Australia's traditional banks in a flattering light. That's one reason Australia has not hesitated to issue full banking licenses to several fintechs.

How late is too late? That's the key question as PayPal prepares to enter China's digital payments market with the acquisition of the Chinese state-owned online payments provider GoPay. PayPal took the 70% stake in GoPay through one of its local subsidiaries, Yinbaobao. When the deal closes - expected in the fourth quarter - PayPal will become the first foreign online payments provider in China.

Japan's biggest brokerages are moving to tap opportunities in the forthcoming security tokens market. From April 2020, Japan will permit fundraising through security token offerings, which have already been launched in the U.S., Singapore and Taiwan.

UK-based Revolut is the one of the world's most valuable challenger banks with a valuation of US$1.7 billion. With seemingly unlimited coffers of venture capital to draw upon, the company is targeting a $10 billion valuation in the next few years. Its executives say that the company would need to be valued at US$20 billion or more before it would consider going public.

Revolut's backers are pouring money into the company because they believe it is pioneering banking of the future: digitally native, frictionless, having a minimal branch network (and thus a more competitive cost structure than traditional retail banks) and a stronger focus on niche customer segments underserved by incumbents. Currently, Revolut offers foreign exchange, stock and crypto brokerage services, plus peer-to-peer payments.

Demand for cross-border remittances is surging across Southeast Asia, home to a sizeable migrant worker population and many of the world's fastest growing economies. The amounts being remitted by the region's 21 million migrant workers are considerable - $68 billion annually, according to Siam Commercial Bank (SCB). Given their modest earnings, migrant workers need affordable banking services. They cannot easily absorb the high fees associated with some traditional remittance services.

Taiwan has only recently begun to kick its cash habit. For years, small merchants on the island would only accept bills and coins. Some still don't take plastic and mobile payments. Many do, but there's a catch: They tell the customer goods are pricier if paid for with a credit card. They aren't supposed to pass on the merchant fee to the customer - it's technically illegal - but local consumers aren't likely to file a complaint with the authorities.

If Chinese media reports are correct, Tencent's digital wallet will soon have a virtual credit card. The Chinese internet giant is reportedly developing a payment product called Fenfu for WeChat Pay, with an expected fourth quarter launch. Fenfu would allow WeChat Pay to compete directly in the virtual credit segment with its rivals' products.

In the early 2010s, back when Donald Trump still hosted The Apprentice and the title of "Tariff Man" belonged to Herbert Hoover, China was pursuing high-profile financial reform. Shanghai, tasked by the central government with becoming a global financial center by 2020, was abuzz with the sound of renminbi internationalization. The Lujiazui financial district regularly hosted forums where participants benchmarked the growing use of the yuan in trade settlement, the rise of offshore yuan trading hubs in Hong Kong and London and the renminbi's path to global reserve currency status.

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