Financial Industry Blog - Kapronasia

This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle

India’s United Payments Interface (UPI) real-time payments system has transformed how Indians make payments, allowing them to easily transfer money instantly from one bank account to another: from a customer to a business, or between individuals. Since its 2016 launch, UPI has amassed 300 million users and 500 million merchants in a population of 1.4 billion and been a decisive factor in India’s embrace of cashless payments given its ease of use and interoperability.

If you want proof that sanctions have limited effectiveness, look no further than North Korea. The hermit kingdom is probably the most sanctioned country on earth, and yet it keeps figuring out ever more nefarious ways to access foreign currency. Its mammoth crypto hacks are in a class by themselves, as while there are plenty of criminals that steal decentralized digital currencies, North Korea is among one of the only states that invests considerable resources in such crimes.

This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle

Taiwan’s e-commerce market has been growing steadily in recent years, buoyed by the pandemic-induced boom in online shopping but also due to rising trade ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Per a research report commissioned by Amazon, the B2C segment is forecast estimated to grow 9% annually from 2021 to 2025, reaching NT$683 billion (US$23.2 billion). Companies including Taiwan’s own PChome and Momo as well as Shopee and Rakuten are all keen to tap into related market opportunities.

September 26 2023

Why PhonePe is thriving

There is usually good reason to be skeptical these days about a loss-making fintech with a sky-high valuation, but India’s PhonePe – valued at US$12 billion – could be an exception to the rule. The company has fought its way to the top of the subcontinent’s massive UPI payments rail, edging out Google Pay and Paytm, is gradually building out a comprehensive digital financial services ecosystem and continues to raise eyewatering sums from investors at a time when the easy money no longer flows.

It’s always good to revisit assumptions, especially when the bank you are analyzing is an offshoot of an incumbent as large as Standard Chartered. When we initially heard that there was a new kid on the block among the digital banks in Singapore – but not altogether “new” – we were skeptical because the value proposition was anchored in, well, groceries. It’s just not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about how to build a successful lender. That said, the ecosystem play by Standard Chartered and Fair Price Group appears to be bearing fruit (no pun intended).

Southeast Asia’s largest platform companies all reported second quarter earnings recently. Some results were better than others, but Sea Group, Grab and GoTo all continue to struggle with the fundamentals. The latter two companies are not profitable, while Sea’s performance underwhelmed investors.

Japan’s megabanks are not the only Japanese financial services companies keen on growing their fintech footprint. The SoftBank spinoff SBI Holdings is a digital focused conglomerate with a securities division, a digital bank that is reportedly Japan’s largest by deposits, an asset management arm, an insurance business and a venture capital arm.

South Korea’s digital banks have been among the most successful online lenders in East Asia, benefiting from the network effect of their respective digital services platforms, relatively weak incumbent digital offerings and strong demand from the country’s retail banking market for new types of products. Yet as they expand into new market segments, in some cases rapidly, regulators are bound to take notice. This holds especially true for the mortgage loan segment.

The Philippines is moving forward, at least tentatively, with plans to develop a wholesale central bank digital currency (CBDC) and has selected a technology partner for its first digital peso pilot Project Agila. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) has decided to go with Hyperledger Fabric, an open-source blockchain framework hosted by the Linux Foundation.

In a rapidly digitizing world, many Asian countries are going cashless in order to create better, faster, and cheaper payment infrastructure. But should 100% cashless be the goal?

While cashless transactions offer clear benefits, significant barriers exist to achieving a completely cashless society. Infrastructure limitations, inadequate digital literacy, and disparities in access to technology hinder the widespread adoption of digital payments in many Asian countries. In addition, cultural preferences and the role of cash in informal economies are tough to dislodge.

In recent years, Japan’s largest banks have expanded rapidly in emerging Southeast Asia, from Indonesia to Thailand to Vietnam, as well as India. At the same time, they are making strategic investments in advanced economies such as the United States and Israel. With growth prospects at home facing constraints, from the aging population to the fact that the Japanese population is well banked, this search for growth overseas looks set to continue for some time.

Despite high expectations for China's digital currency, adoption of the e-CNY for retail payments in the country remains modest at best. A key issue, and one we have been discussing for several years now, is interoperability with the existing, very effective digital payments ecosystem. The e-CNY is unlikely to be more than a novelty unless it can be fully interoperable with Alipay and WeChat Pay.

Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) is among the most fintech-forward commercial banks in Asia. What makes SCB's digital finance strategy successful is that it leverages all the advantages of incumbency while using technology to develop products for the digital age.

In recent years, India’s fintech market has come into its own, and is now one of the world’s largest. In Asia, it has arguably become the single most important market. A new report by Elevation Capital, which has offices in Bengaluru and Salt Lake City, Utah, finds that India’s fintech ecosystem has grown especially fast since 2018. Funding increased from US$2.2 billion that year to US$5.8 billion by 2022, while the subcontinent’s share of global fintech funding jumped from 2.9% in 2018 to 6.5% in 2022.

Asean has a cross-border payments dream that is slowly moving closer to coming true. Despite the very real interoperability challenges, Southeast Asian countries nonetheless seem determined to build a payments rail of their own that can boost the use of local currencies – perhaps at the dollar’s expense – while speeding up transaction time, lowering transaction costs and strengthening connectivity among their respective financial systems. The latest countries to sign onto this project are the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

In late August, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) said that it would start a phased restriction on IPOs to boost "dynamic equilibrium" between investment and financing. The CSRC has not yet said how long the curbs will last, and market insiders foresee stricter IPO vetting and a longer registration process.

Just when it seemed Capital A had put aside its digital banking ambitions, the ever-ambitious airline/platform company announced its partnership with the Philippines’ ascendant online lender UnionDigital Bank. The tie-up between Capital A and UnionDigital Bank comes amid a growing travel recovery in Southeast Asia and strong demand for digital financial services in the Philippines.

When a digital bank reaches profitability quickly, as in positive net income, it is always worth exploring in detail. After all, it is the exception, not the rule. In the case of the Philippines’ UnionDigital Bank, there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Most of the time when we write about Singapore’s rise as a wealth management hub, the news is overwhelmingly positive. But every so often, the risks inherent to taking on that role become glaringly apparent. Singapore is no stranger to money laundering risks, especially after several banks in the city-state were involved with the 1MDB mega scandal. However, in the S$1 billion money laundering investigation Singapore is currently undertaking, it seems the city-state is the center of the alleged crimes rather than Malaysia or another country.

Why is it that central bankers are always more enthusiastic about CBDCs than anyone else? That seems to be the case with India’s digital rupee, which appears to not be seeing especially fast uptake in its second year of testing. In July, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) asked Indian banks to step up their participation in pilot programs because it wants to increase transactions.

Investors seem happy with Grab’s Q2 results. Since the self-proclaimed Southeast Asian super app said last week that it expects to break even in the third quarter rather than the fourth quarter, while its quarterly losses narrowed and revenue rose 77% to US$567 million, its shares have risen 17%. But questions remain about the long-term viability of Grab’s business model.

With its announcement of stablecoin regulations, Singapore is betting that these “safer” cryptocurrencies have staying power and will play an increasingly important role in the future of financial services. The decision is consistent with the city-state’s interest in developing itself as a digital asset hub for institutional investors. It also gives Singapore a leg up on Hong Kong, which is also trying to be a cryptocurrency hub of sorts, but has yet to introduce any regulatory framework for stablecoins.

Is the Philippines’ Maya Bank the best digital lender in Southeast Asia? The Digital Banker certainly thinks so. On a recent top 10 list compiled by that publication, Maya was the only Southeast Asian digibanks and No. 8 overall alongside digibanks such as Starling, Revolut, WeBank, MOX Bank and Kakao Bank.

Cambodia’s Project Bakong is unique if only for the fact that it is a functional blockchain-based CBDC – one of the few in the world along with the digital renminbi and the Bahamas’ sand dollar. In its first few years of existence, Bakong mainly been used domestically and with reasonably good – if not pathbreaking – results: 8.5 million users (more than half of the Cambodian population) and US$15 billion in transactions as of the end of 2022. It is no surprise that Bakong’s creator, the Japanese fintech firm Soramitsu, now wants to expand Bakong’s presence regionally by making it the centerpiece of a regional digital payments network connecting Japan with Southeast Asia.

It’s earnings season and Southeast Asia’s platform companies are trying once again to convince investors that they are on the path to profitability. The jury is still out as far as we’re concerned, especially in the case of any company that started out in the business of ride hailing and until recently emphasized growth at all costs. Having lost 75% of its market valuation since going public a little over a year ago, SoftBank and GIC-backed GoTo has yet to convince investors that it has turned a corner on the path to profitability, and we see little in its second-quarter earnings results that suggest anything has fundamentally changed for the better.

What goes up must come down says Newton’s law of gravity. It doesn’t technically apply to fintech funding, but can, at least in figurative sense, be a useful paradigm for exploring why the funding spigots in the Asia-Pacific region are no longer gushing forth large capital injections. According to a recent KPMG report, fintech funding in the region fell to just US$5.1 billion in the first half of the year, a dramatic decrease from the record-breaking US$45 billion raised during the same period a year earlier.

Investors are bullish on the potential of Singapore-based digital wealth management platform Endowus. Though the company’s current revenue is modest, and profitability remains very much in the future, Endowus still managed to recently raise US$35 million from some huge banks and four Asian billionaire families.

Sea Group’s stock took a pummeling on Tuesday, falling almost 29% to US$40.58 as investors reacted to a second quarter earnings report in which the company missed revenue forecasts though made a profit of US$331 million. In a nutshell, Sea’s triumvirate of digital services that once looked unassailable now seems a bit shaky as consumer spending in many of its key markets is not robust. We think the fintech business still has plenty of potential, and probably the same holds true for e-commerce, but the erstwhile profitable gaming arm has become a laggard.

As a medium-income country with a high rate of financial inclusion for the region – more than 80% of Thais have a bank account – Thailand is not the first country we would expect to briskly adopt a digital fiat currency. The purported benefits of a CBDC become nebulous without a pressing financial inclusion need. For that reason, we suspect that the Bank of Thailand has been in no rush to launch a digital baht. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interested in test driving one – hence the retail CBDC pilot that recently got underway.

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