It has not been the best few months for India’s cryptocurrency market. New tax legislation is putting a damper on trading and investment, which are also taking a beating amid a broader crypto bear market. At the same time, fintech funding in India may finally dry up – a least for a while – as investors tighten their belts.
For several years, the Asia-Pacific region has been a hotbed of fintech funding. Despite, or perhaps because of the coronavirus pandemic, fintechs have had very little trouble raising cash. After all, when the whole economy is moving online, banking needs be digital too. However, shaky global economic and geopolitical conditions appear to be finally starting to weigh on Asia fintech funding, with the second quarter seeing a clear drop-off in big-ticket fundraising.
In August 2021, The Bangkok Post ran an article entitled “Thailand ripe for a digital banking battle” that captured the conventional wisdom about the prospects for online lenders in the kingdom, which is that there is a significant market opportunity for them due to lagging digitization among incumbents rather than the existence of a significant unbanked population. About 82% of Thais have a bank account, though by one estimate 48% of the population is underserved. Yet the opportunity for digital banks could be shrinking as big traditional lenders accelerate digital transformation and the government introduces real-time retail payments possible with only a mobile number.
Internationalization of the renminbi has taken a different path than what seemed likely when the process began in the early 2010s. At the time, many observers expected China would gradually open its capital account and allow its currency to float freely. These steps were seen as integral for China to achieve a commensurate status in the international financial system that it already enjoys in the global economy. Yet political considerations have increasingly outweighed financial ones, and renminbi internationalization is instead evolving inside a less open ecosystem than expected.
The digitization of financial services in Taiwan has dovetailed with rising online scams, but compared with many other economies, Taiwan did not experience a surge in such illicit activity for most of the pandemic. The reason is that Taiwan adhered to a de facto zero-Covid policy that kept infections down for more than two years. It was only in the past few months when the hyper-infectious omicron variant penetrated Taiwan’s defenses amid a wobbly global macroeconomic environment that online financial crime began to skyrocket.
In February, Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) would launch a central bank digital currency in the 2022-23 fiscal year. In her budget speech, she said that introducing a digital rupee would give a big boost to the digital economy and lead to a more efficient and cheaper currency management system. Yet since then, there has been no obvious progress on India’s CBDC project, and even some measured pushback against the idea.
Slowly but surely, peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is becoming a sustainable and regulated industry in Indonesia. A recent regulatory crackdown aimed at consolidating the sector into a smaller number of compliant, above-board firms has borne fruit. Unlike China, Indonesia has decided that P2P lending can serve a legitimate financial inclusion role. Having the benefit of hindsight, Jakarta moved to proactively regulate P2P lending.
South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol entered office planning to make his country friendlier to cryptocurrency. During his campaign, Yoon said, “To realize the unlimited potential of the virtual asset market, we must overhaul regulations that are far from reality and unreasonable.” Though Yoon likely remains keen to carry out his campaign promises about crypto, it will be no easy task. He faces conservative, crypto-skeptical financial regulators, a parliament controlled by South Korea’s main political opposition, the Democratic Party of Korea, and now the fallout over the abrupt collapse of the TerraUSD stablecoin.
Sea Group’s share price has tanked over the past six months, falling 75% to roughly US$78. The company has underperformed in many respects, even in its profitable gaming unit Garena. As Garena’s growth slows, Sea will have even more trouble financing its unprofitable e-commerce and fintech units, unless the company finds a way to reduce costs. Yet it continues to expand aggressively in regions far from home, with Latin America a key area of focus.
Hong Kong’s virtual banks arrived at a tumultuous time in the city, facing the twin challenges of political tumult and Covid-19. However, the pandemic may have helped spur greater uptake of the online lenders’ services, especially now that Hong Kong has experienced a more severe Covid wave. Important questions remain though: How big is the opportunity in a city of 7. 4 million where 93% of people over 14 have a bank account? And is it realistic to assume that expansion to the mainland will be possible?
Platform companies have not had the best 2022, especially loss-making ones based in Southeast Asia. Amid global economic jitters, investors are souring on inflated tech valuations and stocks. We had thought Indonesia’s GoTo, with its laser focus on its massive home market and strong fundamentals, might be able to buck this trend, and at first it seemed the company might do just that. After all, its IPO was successful. But in recent weeks, the company’s share price has plummeted, mirroring the trajectories of its peers like Sea Group, Grab, Alibaba and Paytm.
It is a testament to the difficulty of establishing a viable international financial center in Asia that so many first-tier cities in the region are vying to compete with Hong Kong yet none is truly a peer competitor. Even Singapore, undoubtedly the most important fintech hub in Southeast Asia if not the entire region, cannot match Hong Kong in the capital markets space. Seoul is the latest Asian city to throw its hat in the ring to become a global financial center.
On April 29, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) awarded digital banking licenses to five consortia primarily led by large tech firms and incumbent financial institutions. The one exception was a consortium that includes Grab and Singtel and is co-led by Kuok Brothers, a massive conglomerate that focuses on real estate, shipping and agribusiness, among other things.
Indonesia’s digibanking sector continues to be among the busiest in Asia Pacific with a flurry of deals in recent weeks. Key deals include buy now pay later (BNPL) firm FinAccel’s purchase of a majority stake in PT Bank Bisnis Internasional and SME financing platform Funding Societies and used car marketplace Carro investing an undisclosed amount in Bank Index Selindo (Bank Index). Indonesian peer-to-peer lender Amartha is also reportedly in talks to acquire 70% of local bank PT Bank Victoria Syariah.
The Philippines is taking a different approach to crypto than many other Asian countries, most notably in a tentative acceptance of the use of decentralized digital currencies for payments. Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have all banned crypto for payments outright, while Singapore has licensed just a handful of companies to use digital assets for payments.
We would say that the gravy train has been derailed for Australia’s cash-incinerating buy now, pay later (BNPL) firms, but they may not be exactly right. After all, “gravy train” implies making easy money and most of these companies never made money in the first place – if our key metric is profitability. The problems for these firms are manifest, from intense competition – and especially the arrival of deep-pocketed incumbents and tech firms to the market – to looming regulation and widening losses.
India’s United Payments Interface (UPI) is a bit of an anomaly in the world of fintech, which is typically dominated by high-flying startups and deep-pocketed venture capitalists. UPI was launched in 2016 by a specialized division of the Reserve Bank of India, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), to create a unified real-time payments platform for the subcontinent’s retail payments. Governments are usually not seen as leading fintech innovators, but in this case, UPI has been so successful that other countries are keen to learn from its success; it is expanding internationally and India’s leading e-wallets compete for the largest share of UPI payments.
China’s fintech crackdown has slowed the domestic growth of the country’s biggest platform companies, but they remain committed to international expansion through strategic investments. Tencent has a number of key investments in Southeast Asia, Australia and UK that are worth watching, including its stakes in Sea Group, Voyager Innovations, Airwallex, Afterpay and most recently the UK fintech Previse.
It is important to take what Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma says with a grain of salt. For many years, he has talked up Paytm’s potential and deep-pocketed backers like SoftBank and Alibaba have bought it. Yet Sharma’s bullishness has not been borne out by Paytm’s stock performance. Though Paytm’s IPO was India’s largest of all time, it nonetheless plummeted on the first day of trading in November 2021 and has since lost about 60% of its value.
North Korea’s resilience is often surprising to outside observers. After all, Pyongyang is the only communist East Asian country to not formally launch economic reforms. It is impoverished and isolated. Further, U.S.-led sanctions imposed from the mid-2000s have made it harder for North Korea to conduct international trade. However, North Korea has developed a formidable cybercrime capability in order to evade the sanctions, and it is increasingly targeting digital assets whose decentralized nature make them vulnerable to determined hackers.
Pakistan’s fintech sector has long been a sleeper. Investors are now awaking to the significant opportunities in a country with 100 million unbanked people (the third largest unbanked population in the world), growing smartphone penetration and internet connectivity, incumbents with a weak digital game, and government policies aimed at using digital financial technology to boost financial inclusion. With just 1% of Pakistan’s US$4 trillion in annual payments currently made digitally, the sky is the limit.
The use of decentralized virtual currencies is growing expeditiously in Indonesia and Southeast Asia’s largest economy has the highest crypto adoption rate in the world along with Brazil, according to a new study by crypto exchange Gemini published in early April. The report found that 41% of Indonesians aged between 18 and 75 years old with an income of more than $14,000 per year own crypto assets.
In December 2021, Razorpay became India’s most valuable private fintech as it reached a valuation of US$7.5 billion, more than double the US$3 billion milestone it hit last April. Razorpay’s US$375 million Series F financing round raised more than all of its previous rounds combined. By eschewing India’s hyper-competitive retail payments market – dominated by the likes of Google Pay and PhonePe, with Paytm a distant third – Razorpay can best capitalize on opportunities in the fast-growing merchant payments segment.
Digital banks tend to lose money in their early years of operation. It is usually not a question of if, but how much. In the case of Taiwan’s banks, the losses are sufficient to potentially require an increase in capitalization. Line Bank lost almost NT$2.3 billion (US$78.7 million) in about one year of operation while Rakuten Bank lost NT$705 million (US$24.1 million).
One good unicorn deserves another. Just five months after the Philippines minted its first fintech unicorn – and indeed first private company to hit a US$1 billion valuation – it has produced another. While the first unicorn was Alibaba-backed Mynt, operator of the GCash e-wallet, the latest one is Tencent-backed Voyager Innovations, which operates the digital wallet PayMaya.
The need for comprehensive regulation of decentralized virtual currencies in Australia is greater than ever as crypto ownership in the country steadily rises. New research by Roy Morgan shows that 1 million Australians aged 18 and up own at least one cryptocurrency with the average crypto investment in the country roughly AU$20,000. Unsurprisingly, Bitcoin and Ethereum are the most popular cryptocurrencies with investors, though some also hold Ripple, Cardano, Dogecoin, Shiba Inu, Solana, Binance Coin, Litecoin, Cronos and others.
Ant Group and Globe Telecom-backed Mynt was the Philippines' one and only unicorn until April 12 when Voyager hit the milestone. Mynt reached the status last November after raising US$300 million from global investors including Warburg Pincus and Insight Partners. Mynt made good on its promise to become a “double unicorn” by reaching a US$2 billion valuation. While its long-term prospects in the vastly underbanked Philippines look good, questions remain about Mynt’s business model and the timing of an eventual IPO.
Heading into GoTo’s IPO Monday, one could be forgiven for being a bit skeptical. Here was another loss-making platform company with a sky-high valuation and a lot of subsidy-driven digital services. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? Not necessarily, say investors. GoTo raised US$1.1 billion in a triumphant IPO on the Indonesia Stock Exchange. Shares rose up to 23% and closed the day 13% higher at 382 rupiah, valuing the firm at about US$31.5 billion.
Hong Kong’s IPO market has likely hit a nadir, with funds raised from new share listings plummeting 90% year-on-year in the first quarter. Just 11 companies went public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in the January-March period, raising a total of US$1.72 billion. It was HKEX’s worst performance since the first quarter of 2013.
Australia’s casino gaming sector has long had lax money laundering controls. However, historically, Australian banks have borne the brunt of regulatory ire for money laundering breaches. Both Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Westpac have paid massive fines for such violations in recent years. However, with AUSTRAC launching a probe into Crown Melbourne and Crown Perth on March 1 and allegations emerging later in the month that the Star Entertainment Group laundered money in Macau, the casino gaming sector is likely to come under much greater scrutiny.
There is a growing list of Chinese companies that could be forced to exit U.S. stock exchanges under legislation passed in 2020. The legislation requires all public companies in the U.S. to comply with auditing requirements that Chinese companies have resisted due to Beijing’s own state secrecy laws. On March 30, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) added Baidu to the list. A total of 11 Chinese companies facing delisting have been named so far.
Southeast Asia is the most dynamic market for the digital economy in the world, especially e-commerce and fintech. It has a population of 655.3 million, which ought to be big enough for most young tech companies. Not Sea Group though. Sea has done well in the region, but like many platform companies, it is getting overly ambitious, overextending itself, and making costly mistakes.
There is more than one way to drastically curtail crypto activity in a country. China’s approach has been largely effective, but is generally not applicable elsewhere. In the case of India, which has a very different political system than China, blanket bans could face legal challenges while being difficult to enforce. A better approach is to tax the heck out of crypto transactions, which regulators and some politicians almost certainly hope will reduce the attractiveness of the asset class.