Southeast Asian ride-hailing giants Grab and Gojek aim to reinvent themselves as digital banks amidst rising concern about profitability among cash-burning tech startups. Becoming a profitable digital bank is the only way either of the companies will have a crack at super-app status. Bundling ride hailing, food delivery, plus other odds and ends won't do the trick. China's WeChat - the world's first and only super app to date - cemented its dominance by introducing a handy e-wallet and later building out a more comprehensive suite of digital banking services.
In 2019, the Asian tiger economies cautiously welcomed virtual banks. The financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore as well as the advanced manufacturing hubs of Taiwan and South Korea can all benefit from digital-first competition in their respective financial sectors, where incumbents dominate. That has led to some complacency.
The Indonesian central bank has approved WeChat Pay to operate in Southeast Asia's largest economy following a lengthy review period. WeChat Pay previously had been accepted at some Indonesian points of sale, but was not considered a legal form of payment. Bank Indonesia said in a statement that it granted WeChat Pay a permit to operate in the country on January 1. WeChat arrives as Indonesia introduces a nationwide standard QR payment system, Quick Response Indonesia Standard (QRIS). WeChat Pay will be accepted as a form of payment at merchants who support QRIS.
UK challenger bank Revolut has managed an impressive feat. Despite racking up huge losses, the company has convinced investors to support a costly global expansion campaign that will eventually give it a presence in every continent but Antarctica. Revolut's losses doubled to £32.8 million in 2018 even as revenue grew more than 350%. In 2019, Revolut expanded to Singapore and Australia and increased its user base to 8 million.
Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial is reportedly working with banks to restart a long-stalled initial public offering. In its most recent fundraising round, held in June 2018, Ant was valued at US$150 billion. With a price tag like that, when Ant does go public, the listing will be pathbreaking for Asian companies. The company has not given a timetable for the IPO, but Credit Suisse and China International Corp. are involved in initial preparations, according to The Financial Times.
Across Southeast Asia, traditional banks and fintechs have been inking partnerships. The fintechs, despite the "fin" in their name, almost always have stronger technology than banking acumen. In contrast, banks have deep financial expertise and clunky legacy IT systems.
In the Kingdom of Cambodia, the line between traditional banking and fintech is increasingly blurred. ABA Bank, a traditional lender which has become a leader in digital banking, is a good example. In a January report, AsiaMoney notes that the bank has undergone an unlikely transformation. Founded in 1996, ABA did not perform especially well for the first 13 years of its existence. But a decade ago, under the guidance of some deep-pocked investors from Central Asia, the bank hit the reset button and changed its business strategy. Today, ABA is a leader among Cambodian banks with assets of about US$4 billion.
The private-equity unit of United Overseas Bank has co-led a US$31.2 million Series A funding round for the Thai fintech start-up Lightnet along with South Korea's Hanwha Investment and Securities and Japan's Seven Bank. Other investors included Singapore's Hopeshine Ventures, Signum Capital and Du Capital as well as Taiwan-based Uni-President Asset Holdings and Zhejiang-based HashKey Capital. Lightnet was co-founded by Chatchaval Jiaravanon, a member of the family that owns Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group, and Tridbodi Arunanondchai, a tech entrepreneur and former investment banker.
The Philippines has issued a digital banking license to Tonik Financial, a Singapore-based fintech. The firm claims to be both the first native digital bank in the Philippines and the Southeast Asia region. The Philippines central bank, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), approved Tonik for a license that will allow it to offer a full range of retail banking services, with a focus on retail deposits and consumer loans.
American Express has been trying to enter the China market since before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. As China's financial reform stalled, so did the US card giant's prospects in the world's largest consumer market. Now that Washington and Beijing have reached a phase-one trade deal, AmEx is finally poised to start doing business in China. In early January, shortly before the trade deal was signed, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) accepted AmEx's application to begin China operations.
No China fintech segment has fallen faster and harder than peer-to-peer lending. Not even cryptocurrency, which Beijing all but outlawed, has been crippled like P2P lending. The reason is simple: The scam-ridden P2P lending segment robbed hundreds of thousands of retail investors of their life savings. Some distraught victims even committed suicide. There were massive Ponzi schemes. Ezubao, a now defunct P2P lender which was based in Anhui, defrauded US$7.6 billion from 900,000 investors before it imploded. A Beijing court sentenced Ezubao's founder to life in prison in 2017. Shanlin Finance, which was based in Shanghai, swindled US$9 billion from investors before authorities broke it up in 2018.
In Beijing's view, scams of that size threaten social stability. With that in mind, the government had no choice but to crack down on the largely unregulated segment. To be sure, Beijing's dragnet has snagged some compliant lenders as well as miscreants. Yet, from the government's perspective, that's a small price to pay to assert control over the industry and reduce systemic financial risk. As of the end of 2019, just 343 P2P firms were still operating, down from 6,000 at the sector's 2015 peak. Authorities in Gansu, Hebei, Hunan and Sichuan Province as well as the municipality of Chongqing shut P2P lending down completely.
Hong Kong's IPO hot streak is expected to continue this year with the former British colony among the world's top three markets for initial public offerings, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). PwC expects up to 180 companies to raise as much as HK$260 billion (US$33.4 billion) on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
While sufficient to place Hong Kong among the world's three top IPO markets, that amount would still mark a decline of almost 18% from 2019's HK$315.5 billion, which was No. 1 globally. Alibaba's mammoth secondary share listing of HK$100 billion (US$12.9 billion) accounted for almost 40% of the total last year.
2020 is off to a good start for South Korean fintech unicorn Viva Republica. The PayPal-backed firm received preliminary approval from South Korea's Financial Services Commission for a license to operates its neobank Toss Bank. Toss Bank will be permitted to offer a suite a retail banking services, including current accounts, credit and loan products. Toss Bank is expected to launch in the first half of 2021.
Viva Republica can finally breathe a sigh of relief. The FSC rejected its initial digital banking license application last year on the grounds that it had a problematic ownership structure - ie: a tech company holding a large majority stake - and ability to raise funds. The FSC noted that Toss Bank lost 44.5 billion won in 2018, raising doubts about the neobank's plan to increase its capital more than fourfold in three years. The FSC's point about funding was salient, given the tendency of fintechs to burn through cash without blazing a trail to profitability. Viva Republica evidently revised its fundraising plan in a satisfactory manner on the second go.
Paytm is not just the most valuable Indian fintech firm: At US$16 billion, the digital payments company boasts the highest valuation of any Indian startup. It has long been considered a standout on the Indian fintech scene and counts Softbank and Ant Financial as its primary backers. Together, those two heavyweight investors own 60% of Paytm. In a recent interview with The Financial Times, Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar said, "We see ourselves on a healthy path."
Although the U.S. and China are on the verge of signing a phase one trade deal, the trade war is far from over. Most of the hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs the two countries have levied on each other over the past 19 months remain in place. The bilateral relationship is as fraught as at any time since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. Yet, the "financial war" forecast by pundits hasn't materialized.
Vietnam is ready to finalize plans for a regulatory sandbox for fintech banking and cashless payments, according to Asia financial magazine The Asset. The Vietnamese government issued Resolution 01 on January 2, which outlined significant tasks and solutions to bolster the country’s socio-economic development in 2020. The sandbox is expected to support the growing sharing economy in Vietnam as well as numerous local startups.
The State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) has been a supporter of the fintech sector since 2017. In addition to establishing a fintech-focused steering committee, the SBV created the initial proposal for a fintech sandbox in Vietnam. Deputy Director of Payments at the SBV, Ngo Van Duc, said that the Vietnamese government needed to develop new regulations and policies to ensure the continued development of the fintech sector in Vietnam and that the creation of a regulatory sandbox for fintech was an urgent need.
Chinese investment in India has flourished over the past decade, reaching a $8 billion as of December 11, 2019, as compared to $200 million a decade earlier in 2009. A significant amount of that investment is coming from China’s two tech giants, Alibaba and Tencent, which have been aggressively investing in Indian start-ups. Many of these start-ups have crossed the $1 billion valuation threshold to become unicorns.
Alibaba and Ant Financial have invested resources in five unicorns out of the six companies they’ve invested in, while Tencent has done the same for seven out of twelve startups they’ve funded. This would mean that Alibaba and Tencent have invested in approximately half of the 31 unicorns in India, according to a report from Iron Pillar. A six-fold increase of Chinese investment in India was recorded between 2013 and 2014, coinciding with the strategic restructuring of Alipay to Ant Financial. Experts believe that a majority of Chinese capital in India come from Alibaba and Tencent, or its subsidiaries.
The former Portuguese colony of Macau, China's answer to Las Vegas, has long struggled to diversify its economy away from gaming. Efforts to promote MICE and family tourism have had limited success. After all, Macau is small and faces stiff competition in the region.
Yet, amidst relentless political turmoil in Hong Kong - China's only global financial center - Beijing has found a new opportunity for Macau: offshore finance. While Macau cannot replace Hong Kong, it might be transformed into a secondary offshore financial center for China. Macau benefits from the same one country, two systems model that governs Hong Kong, although the former's legal system is Portuguese rather than British, and doesn't enjoy the same prestige.
If there is indeed a fintech bubble, it shows no signs of deflating. Uber's underwhelming IPO, WeWork's fall, SoftBank's related painful write-down, a jittery global economy - none of these factors is deterring the deep-pocketed backers of the world's foremost fintech startups. The mantra of customer numbers and global expansion over profits remains the rule, not the exception.
And so Monzo, the UK-based virtual bank whose losses rose more than 54% to reach £47.2 million in the fiscal year ended February 2019, is set to raise another £50-100 million within weeks from investors, Reuters reported in late December. Monzo needs the cash to support "rapid growth," according to the report. Monzo launched in the U.S. in June.
2019 was the year of the aspirational super app - aspirational because no platform has come anywhere near the dominance of China's WeChat. WeChat never branded itself as a super app. It simply became one thanks to a timely arrival, its appeal to Chinese users and lack of serious competition.
Rebranding a successful tech startup as a potential super app is a good way to keep the funding gravy train flowing. What could be more enticing to investors? Just ask the Southeast Asian ride-hailing giants Grab and Gojek. But China is a unique market, where users are happy to sacrifice choice for convenience and a frictionless experience. Elsewhere, notably India, users prefer different apps for different functions.
Singapore's ride-hailing unicorn Grab is Southeast Asia's answer to Uber. But as Uber's cash-hemorrhaging business model has come under closer scrutiny, Grab has been racing to rebrand itself: first as a digital bank, then as a "super app" that will offer users in Southeast Asia the same bevy of services as WeChat does in China.
Grab has teamed up with a number of financial-services incumbents in its bid to become a digital bank, but there's a problem with that approach: Incumbents want to co-opt Grab, not let in move in on their core revenue drivers. That's why it makes sense for Grab to apply jointly for a Singapore digital-banking license with telecoms giant Singtel. The two firms have plenty of synergies and no conflicting interests. They applied for the license as a consortium just before the December 31 deadline, with Grab holding a 60% stake and Singtel 40%.
Vanguard hopes to break into the China market through its new partnership with Ant Financial. The two giants announced a joint venture on December 16, 2019, a financial roboadvisor service with an initial investment of approximately 20 million yuan (USD$2.86 million). Individuals with a minimum investment of 800 yuan (USD$115) may access the service, where they could build their investment portfolios from over 5,000 mutual funds offered by Ant Financial.
On December 3rd, Line Pay Taiwan and iPass Corporation announced a collaboration formed with partners in Japan, Thailand and Korea to expand its payment footprint. With an anticipated launch in Q1 2020, the move will open existing cashless payment ecosystems to more than 78 million users in the region and create more business opportunities for Line’s merchant partners. Additionally, Line Pay Taiwan also announced that it had renamed its joint service with iPass to “Line Pay Money” to highlight its primary usage as a digital wallet.
Cross-border transactions are often costly, incurring transfer fees, inter-bank fees and exchange rates that may add up to approximately 4-5 percent per transaction. Moreover, each country has its own set of regulations when it comes to payments. Therefore, incorporating cross-border payments onto its platform may rest in Line’s alliances in Japan, Korea and Thailand.
Taiwan's mobile payments are growing at a steady pace and are expected to hit a record NT$100 billion this year. Mobile payments reached NT$76.1 billion through the first nine months of the year, up 160% over the same period in 2018, according to data compiled by Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC). Mobile payments lagged in Taiwan for years but have picked up considerably on the back of proactive government efforts to reduce the dominance of cash. Because credit card penetration is high in Taiwan, many consumers prefer to tie in their existing credit cards to payment apps (often provided by their banks) on their handsets. This differs somewhat from mainland China, where direct debit from a bank account and stored-value wallets are more prevalent. Taiwan has a more fragmented digital wallet market as well, with no single firm able to dominate to the degree Alipay and WeChat Pay do in the mainland.
In 2019, Vietnam has become one of the hottest markets for fintech investment in Southeast Asia, second only to Singapore. Fintech funding in Vietnam surged to $410 million in the first nine months of the year, accounting for 36% of Asean's total, compared to just 0.4% during the same period a year earlier, according to a new report by PriceWaterHouseCoopers (PwC), the United Overseas Bank (UOB) and the Singapore Fintech Association (SFA).
Another day, another sky-high fintech unicorn valuation. The prevailing sentiment among venture-capital firms investing in fintechs is more often than not "more is better." And so following a record-setting Series E funding round of US$500 million, San Francisco-based Chime has jumped in value from US$1.5 billion in March to US$5.8 billion, according to a December CNBC report. The best part about the 400% increase is that it's happening in private markets, where just about anything is possible. DST Global led the fundraising round, which also included participation from General Atlantic, Iconiq, Coatue, Dragoneer, and Menlo Ventures.
Before fintech took China by storm, visitors to the country only had to remember one simple rule for payments: Make sure to carry sufficient cash. International credit and debit cards often were not accepted outside of five-star hotels and high-end department stores. Inevitably, there was some hassle involved, especially as international bank cards didn't always work at local ATMs. Ironically, now that it's much easier to withdraw cash from local Chinese ATMs with a global bank card, Chinese merchants prefer cashless payments. The trend in China is to swipe a smartphone to pay for just about any ordinary transaction: a coffee at Starbucks, a restaurant meal, a taxi, a bottle of water from a convenience store. It's a breeze as long as you have a Chinese bank account and the requisite digital wallets from Alipay and WeChat Pay on your handset.
Therein lies the problem for visitors to China. Many of them do not have a Chinese bank account, nor do they have WeChat Pay or Alipay installed on their smartphones. With cash being increasingly unwelcome, problems can arise easily. For instance, a shop may accept cash, but because so few transactions are done in cash, not be able to give a shopper proper change. If the merchant doesn't accept international credit cards, then the shopper is out of luck.
Neobanks are coming soon to Singapore, but the top incumbents appear cool as cucumbers. That's largely because the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) favors a gradualist approach to fintech, rather than a disruptive one. When possible, the regulator encourages incumbents and fintechs to join hands.
Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), Singapore's longest established bank, is following that cooperative route favored by the MAS. Compared to its rivals UOB and DBS, OCBC "is a laggard...in the digitializing processes" according to a September research note by CGS-CIMB but is now eyeing one of Singapore's coveted digital-banking licenses.
The political unrest in Hong Kong has plunged the city's economy into recession for the first time since the global financial crisis of 2008-09. The retail and hospitality sectors have borne the brunt of the blow so far, but that's set to change barring a miraculous easing of tensions.
One of the most obvious impacts of the unrest on the financial sector is the delay of Hong Kong's planned launch of eight virtual banks. The neobanks, which are heavily represented by financial interests from the mainland, were set to swoop onto the scene and shake up a staid banking sector dominated by a handful of incumbents accustomed to high profits and meager competition. That would have been a boon for consumers and forced incumbents to up their game. In fact, ahead of the anticipated arrival of the neobanks, traditional banks had already started to slash some unpopular fees.
Fintech is generally considered a force for good in India, which has a large unbanked population and is eager to use digital financial technology to boost financial inclusion. But not all fintechs are created equal. And not all fintechs have such noble intentions.
India fintechs have begun lending money to people who can't get bank loans because they lack a credit history, the one they have does not instill confidence in lenders, or the banks just don't want to make personal loans. Of course, the lenders want to be sure they get their money back. And just as they can use borrower data to make a decision about whether to approve an applicant's loan, they can use that same data for debt collection. Here's the rub: That practice is often illegal in India, as well as in the United States, where some of startups' key investors are located.
Australia is not considered a country at high risk for money laundering. When the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grades Australia on different AML criteria, it tends to award a "compliant" or "largely compliant" grade. Only 14 of 40 criteria were graded as "non-compliant" or "partially compliant" during FATF's most recent review of Australia. The most long-running of Australia's AML weaknesses are in the property market, where some analysts say unsavory characters from overseas launder illicit cash.
That's why the the recent money-laundering scandals involving one of Australia's biggest four banks come as an unpleasant surprise. The Royal Financial Services Commission's review of misconduct in the banking sector had already cast the biggest Australian lenders in in an unflattering light. Now Australia's financial intelligence agency Austrac is proceeding with legal action against Westpac, one of the four largest Australian banks, alleging that breached AML and counter-terrorism laws more than 23 million times in $11 billion in transactions. Some of the transactions reportedly involved the exploitation of children.
Brazil's Nubank has 15 million customers, making it the largest fintech in Latin America. Backed by heavyweight investors like Sequoia Capital and Tencent, Nubank has been using its sizable war chest - it raised $400 million in July - to embark on a rapid expansion spree in Latin America's largest country and economy. Analysts say that Nubank is valued at about US$10 billion.
Malaysia's digital payments sector is heating up as fintechs and incumbents enter into partnerships in a bid to strengthen their positions in the fast growing market. Research by Visa shows that 70% of Malaysians prefer to shop at retail outlets where merchants accept digital payments. The Malaysian market of 32 million people has plenty of room to grow, as cash still accounts for 60% of transactions. JPMorgan Chase expects that fast adoption of e-payments by Malaysians could see digital wallets surpass cash use by 2021.
The Chinese banking system is having a tough year. While the big banks are generally in fine shape, many smaller lenders are troubled. At some small lenders, primarily in rural areas, bad debt levels approach 40%. Beijing has already taken the unprecedented step of bailing out a trio of banks in succession this year, beginning with Baoshang Bank in May, and then moving on to Bank of Jinzhou and Hengfeng Bank.
Africa is integral to China's mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion infrastructure plan intended to deepen economic links between China and the world. BRI in Africa usually brings to mind the construction of bridges, rail lines, airports and roads across the continent, but it increasingly involves digital infrastructure too. Africa, where China has been steadily building its presence since 2000, offers Chinese fintech investors opportunities they can't easily find elsewhere. It's one of the world's fastest growing consumer markets, is expected to reach a population of 1.7 billion by 2030 and is eager to boost financial inclusion with digital banking.