Asia Financial Industry Blog

Hong Kong's IPO market picked up in the first quarter right where left off in 2020, soaring to a new high in terms of overall proceeds, according to KPMG. Deals raised on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange totaled US$13.9 billion. The nixed Ant Group deal last October has sidelined most fintech listings but not the rest of what KPMG describes as "innovation companies," notably biotechs.

China is leading the world in CBDC development, prompting speculation that DCEP (digital currency, electronic payment) is on its way to becoming the digital equivalent of the U.S. dollar. The reality is more nuanced. To be sure, China's digital fiat currency is at a more advanced stage than any other major country's CBDC, and China has many potential applications for it domestically. When it comes to cross-border use, however, many questions remain about the digital yuan.

Heading into 2021, Indonesia's prospects for fintech investment were looking pretty good. Among Asia's key emerging markets, Indonesia checks all the right boxes. It is huge, relatively open to foreign investment, has a fast-growing economy (hindered by the pandemic for now, but certain to rebound sharply) and has a large unbanked population. With most Indonesians new to retail investing, fintechs see a strong opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Since January, several Indonesian online investing startups have closed successful funding rounds.

To date, South Korea has been less enthusiastic about launching a central bank digital currency (CBDC) than China or Japan. Beijing leads the world in CBDC development while Tokyo sees a CBDC as a necessity to stay competitive with its giant neighbor. Yet Seoul is now coming around to the need for a digital fiat currency, even if one of the government's purposes in developing one is to reduce the use of crypto in its economy. 

Australia's digital banking honeymoon is winding down. With Xinja and 86 400 both out of the picture - albeit in very different ways - the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) is moving to raise the sector's barrier to entry. It will become harder to get a banking license. Under the revised regulations, neobanks will have to be better capitalized and launch both an income-generating asset product and a deposit product in order to be approved for a full license. 

Nobody can accuse Airwallex of having modest ambitions. The Australia-founded and Hong Kong-based unicorn just raised another US$100 million in an extended Series D round at a valuation of US$2.6 billion. The U.S.'s Greenoaks was the lead investor. The cross-border payments upstart plans to use the capital injection to expand across four continents - Australia, North America, Europe and Asia.

After umpteen funding rounds and nearly nine years in operation, Grab is finally heading for the exit ramp. The question is, will the Singaporean decacorn choose to go public the usual way or do something different? Until the past few weeks, a standard IPO in New York looked like the obvious choice. But with the current SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) craze, Grab might decide to hop on the bandwagon.

Korea's K bank may have finally found the secret sauce. Long a laggard among Korean fintechs, the country's first digital lender is now riding the bitcoin boom thanks to a tie-up with the crypto exchange Upbit. Under a deal K bank and Upbit reached in June 2020, retail investors who want to trade crypto with Upbit must do so through the digital lender. Since last March, Korea has required exchanges to work with lenders like K Bank to ensure the use of valid, real-name accounts for trading. Eager to capitalize on the bitcoin boom, retail customers are signing up at K bank in droves.

Can buy now, pay later (BNPL) get any hotter in Australia? Judging by Commonwealth Bank of Australia's (CBA) foray into the market, yes, it can. CBA's move comes less than two weeks after PayPal announced it would enter the market. CBA is the first of Australia's big four banks to roll out a BNPL product, and it likely will not be the last. The product, CommBank BNPL, will be available to four million of the bank's retail customers for transactions up to AU$1000 from mid-2021.

Amazon may be the world's biggest e-commerce firm and a major player in India's online shopping market, but that has not translated into digital payments dominance in the subcontinent. In fact, Amazon's share of the Indian payments market is paltry compared to Google Pay, Walmart backed-Phone Pe and Alibaba-backed Paytm. But with India's payments market expected to grow more than 300% to Rs 7,092 lakh crore by 2025, Amazon sees plenty of room to boost its market share and eventually expand into more lucrative fintech segments.

Hong Kong's virtual banking field is crowded with eight neobanks that have similar value propositions. In their fledging stage, the digibanks have focused on quickly bringing customers onboard, highlighting their digital agility and offering high deposit interest rates for a limited time. The unicorn WeLab, the only native Hong Kong virtual bank, is one of the first to signal it has a broader strategy. WeLab in early March received an undisclosed investment from Allianz Group's digital investment unit as part of its Series C-1 fundraising and plans to collaborate with Allianz's asset management arm to develop wealth management products.

Paytm is India's most valuable tech startup and largest fintech. The company says it processed 1.2 billion transactions in January, more than its rivals Google and PhonePe that are dominant on the UPI platform. It claims to serve more than 17 million merchants. Yet Paytm is still losing money after more than a decade, burning cash faster than it can earn revenue. That must change soon if the SoftBank-backed firm expects a successful IPO in 2022.

Australia is a key market for PayPal in Asia Pacific. The U.S. payments giant has 9 million accounts Down Under - not too shabby for a country of 25 million people. It has a 17% share of what JP Morgan calls the "alternative payments market (essentially non-cards), ahead of Google Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. But there is a new payments game in town led by firms like Afterpay and Zip. To maintain its competitive edge in Australia, PayPal needs to enter the buy now, pay (BNPL) segment.

Three times is usually the charm, but in this case it means that China's fintech giants are finally out of luck. Firms that had seemed untouchable in two previous crackdowns are suddenly in regulatory crosshairs. Perhaps tech juggernauts should have seen the writing on the wall. After all, Beijing dealt harshly with crypto and P2P lending firms - when it got around to dealing with them. This time around, regulators will make it harder for Ant Group, WeChat Pay and others to profit handsomely from digital finance. They will force the tech giants to meet tough new capitalization requirements and take on more risk for lending, instead of passing it on to incumbent banks. This strategy will not hobble China's platform companies, but it will force them to rejig their business models.

Japan's Line has super app potential. Its messaging app is popular in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. It has content, e-commerce and a growing portfolio of fintech services, with Line Bank set to launch in Taiwan by the middle of the year. And a recent merger with SoftBank affiliate Z Holdings brings an additional US$4.7 billion in capital to the table. The new entity, which integrates Line with Yahoo in Japan, projects that it will post revenue of 2 trillion yen and operating profit of 225 billion yen by fiscal year 2023. It is the brainchild of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, who aims to build a Japanese tech juggernaut able to compete with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple in Japan.

Fintech is the magic glue that holds startup ecosystems together in Asia. One after another, the region's biggest platform companies have pivoted to fintech, and then declared themselves super apps, usually in that order. Indonesia's Traveloka is expanding its fintech offerings from Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam as it eyes going public in the U.S. this year through a blank-check company.

Sea Group's latest earnings report is packed with good news. Its gaming and e-commerce businesses grew expeditiously in 2020 as people stayed home, shopped online and played online games. EBITDA surged to US$107 million, compared to a loss of US$178.6 million in 2019. Gross profit doubled to US$1.3 billion from US$604 million a year earlier. Net income, however, remained negative. In fact, net losses widened to US$1.62 billion from US$1.46 billion. The question for Sea and investors is, does it matter?

When South Korea introduced a peer-to-peer (P2P) lending law last year, it seemed regulators had paved the way for the industry to grow stably. Seoul recognized that P2P lending could promote financial inclusion. The industry just needed proper supervision to minimize fraud and loan delinquency. However, the loan delinquency rate is rising, Korea's fintech giants are cutting their ties with P2P lenders and many of the firms are struggling to meet the law's requirements.

Stripe may be the biggest fintech to fly under the radar in Asia Pacific. In private markets, its valuation is reportedly close to US$100 billion, up from about US$35 billion in April 2020. The San Francisco-based merchant payments provider saw its fortunes soar during the pandemic as its many North American customers moved online. It is now looking east to fuel its next stage of growth, including China, India, Southeast Asia and Australia. In 2020, Stripe increased its staff in the APAC region by 40% to more than 200.

PayPal is a payments giant with super app ambitions but a small footprint in Asia. Indeed, although PayPal has been present in many Asian markets for ages, it is not a market leader in any of them. In fact, to date, it is more notable for reducing its presence - exiting the domestic payments business in both Taiwan and India, for instance - than scaling up. Becoming a bigger player in Asia will not be easy for the US$340 billion company, despite its vast resources.

South Africa’s TymeBank has big plans for Southeast Asia. The South African neobank plans to launch a digital bank in the Philippines and may also apply for a digital bank license in Malaysia. Measured by account numbers, Tyme is one of Africa’s most successful digibanks, claiming to have signed up almost 3 million customers since its launch two years ago. In late February, Tyme announced it had raised US$109 million from investors for expansion in Southeast Asia, one of the largest deals ever by a fintech in South Africa.

Hong Kong's status as a global financial center and lack of capital controls have long exposed it to certain financial crime risks. In 2020, the former British colony faced an unusual convergence of a recession, political tension and a once-in-a-century pandemic that upended society. Under that tough scenario, Hongkongers were scammed out of a record HK$8.33 billion, of which authorities managed to recuperate about HK$3 billion.

Afterpay is the world's foremost buy now, pay later rising star. The Australian company has been on an unmatched hot streak, its share price surging by about 300% in 2020. At roughly AU$134, Afterpay is trading 27 times its price-to-earnings ratio. In the six months to December 31, Afterpay's overall income rose 89% to AU$420 million, even as losses reached AU$76.5 million. Merchant growth in North America was 141%. The company's active users rose 80% year-on-year to 13.1 million. It seems that nothing can slow the company's ascent, with the possible exception of tighter regulation.

Gojek and Tokopedia are Indonesia's two most valuable startups and preeminent tech firms. Merging the two unicorns, with their mostly complementary services, makes a lot more sense that combining Gojek with its arch-rival Grab. While Grab-Gojek talks dragged on for months, Gojek and Tokopedia will not waste any time. They do not want to fall farther behind high-flying Sea Group, which is outperforming the Indonesian companies on their home turf.

The crypto faithful are crying foul as India once again mulls banning decentralized virtual currency. They say pulling the plug on crypto now would be like banning the internet in the 1990s - a reactionary move that would have grim repercussions for India's economy. To be sure, some Indian investors would lose out if they could no longer trade cryptocurrencies. They currently hold about US$1 billion worth. The fintech startup ecosystem might be hurt. But it is hard to imagine the broader Indian economy suffering.

Once upon a time, super apps began as e-commerce platforms or free messaging services. They tapped the network effect to build giant user bases. Because their overhead was low, they could afford to be patient about monetization. Transportation companies do not have the same luxury, especially airlines reeling from the pandemic's effect on air travel. Yet Malaysia-based AirAsia is doubling down on its super app strategy first announced last year. In March, AirAsia will expand its food delivery service airasia food from Malaysia to Singapore.

Since the advent of the internet, technology startups have disrupted one industry after another. It was only a matter of time before they set their sights on financial services.

As it turns out, banking is harder to disrupt than retail, transportation, entertainment or almost anything else. The reason is simple: Trust is paramount in banking and takes time to build, while most digital banks have yet to develop compelling value propositions.

A few of Asia's platform companies have defied this conventional wisdom. The most notable is WeChat, the Tencent-owned app that bundles messaging, digibanking, e-commerce and entertainment under the same umbrella. WeChat was not the first platform company to thrive as a fintech - Alipay was - but it was the first to harness messaging's network effect for that purpose.

It seems that almost every plucky fintech in the cross-border payments space seeks to challenge SWIFT these days. Airwallex is perhaps the best known. The Hong Kong-headquartered (but Australia-founded) unicorn boldly proclaims that it wants to rejig global payments rails at SWIFT's expense. Then there is Lightnet, which is only slightly less ambitious. Lightnet aims to dominate B2B remittances in Asia with none other than cryptocurrency, which it says will render obsolete traditional global payments methods like SWIFT and Western Union. Lightnet is focused on making cross-border payments more economical by trimming the number of intermediary parties from about five to just the sender and receiver. The company expects costs to be further trimmed as its network grows.

P2P lending is one of the fastest growing fintech segments in Indonesia. Demand for credit in Southeast Asia's largest economy is strong while its availability to most Indonesians through the traditional banking system is limited. Indonesia has tens of millions of people who are either underbanked or unbanked. Either way, they cannot easily get a bank loan. P2P platforms offer a convenient alternative. As of October 2020, Indonesia's online lenders had disbursed Rp 56.16 trillion in new loans, up 24% year-on-year, while the NPL ratio was 7.58%, according to data compiled by the country's Financial Services Authority. 

Two years ago, Hong Kong made fintech history in Asia as the region's first major economy to greenlight digital banks. As of the end of 2020, all eight of the banks were finally live. Political and covid-related disruptions had delayed their launch. Judging by the digibanks' marketing literature, they are poised to redefine banking in Hong Kong as we know it. The reality is more nuanced.

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