Call it a comeback? That seems to be the message of the Hong Kong authorities as they work to restore the city’s reputation as Asia’s premier financial hub. While some things will never be the same in the erstwhile British crown colony, it does retain significant strengths as a financial bridge to the mainland, and the Greater Bay Area (GBA) in particular. But when it comes to serving as a hub for cryptocurrency, the jury is still out.
2022 was a year of mixed fortunes for China in many respects – but not in the case of its IPO market. Despite the trials and tribulations that the zero-Covid policy brought to China, listings on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges hit a new high. Nearly 400 firms are estimated to have gone public on China’s exchanges in 2022, raising a record RMB 560 billion (US$80.4 billion), an increase of 3% over 2021, according to PwC.
Japan’s largest bank is betting big on fintech. In recent months, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) has invested in several ascendant Asian fintech firms, including Indonesia’s Akulaku (also backed by Ant Group) and the consumer finance businesses of Netherlands-based Home Credit NV in Indonesia and the Philippines. MUFG may also acquire Japanese buy now, pay later (BNPL) firm Kanmu for roughly 20 billion yen (US$150.56 million).
In the days before China’s tech crackdown humbled the country’s largest platform companies, Ant Group seemed intent on building its own cross-border payments ecosystem in Southeast Asia. The idea, though never explicitly stated, was to build a regional payments rail that could replicate at least some of the success of Alipay’s dominant domestic system.
It was just a matter of time before Southeast Asia’s largest economy unveiled its roadmap for a central bank digital currency (CBDC) and indeed, Indonesia’s central bank recently published a white paper about its plans for a digital rupiah. Whether Indonesia actually needs a CBDC is a separate matter, and its motivations for launching a digital fiat currency are only now starting to become clear.
U.S. payments giant Stripe has had its eye on the Asia-Pacific region for a long time, both mature markets like Japan and Australia, and emerging economies in Southeast Asia. It sees enormous potential in the region, despite the intense competition in the payments segments there. However, the global tech slump may force the company to slow the speed of its expansion as it works to cut costs. Earlier this year, Stripe’s US$95 billion valuation reportedly fell 28% after an internal recalculation. Then came the layoffs.
Like its rival Alibaba, Tencent has developed a large portfolio of overseas fintech investments. Many of these are strategic bets on rising Big Fintech players, like Voyager Innovations in the Philippines, Sea Group in Singapore and Airwallex in Hong Kong via Australia. However, until recently, there has been nothing that clearly links these different companies in Tencent’s fintech ecosystem. The Shenzhen-based company intends to change that with the launch of Tenpay Global and Tenpay Global Remittances.
China embarked on a quest to internationalize its currency in the early 2010s with great fanfare. In support of renminbi internationalization, Beijing announced plans to develop Shanghai as a global financial center and established offshore yuan trading hubs in Hong Kong, Singapore and London.
These efforts represented a push by reform-minded officials to give China a greater role in international finance and activate needed changes to a financial system designed for a country less integrated with the global economy. They came about at a time when it was widely assumed that China’s leadership believed the advantages of a more open financial system outweighed the drawbacks, and that a free-floating renminbi and fully convertible capital account were not a question if, but when.
Among Hong Kong’s eight virtual banks, WeLab Bank stands out for a few reasons. First, it is not simply an offshoot of large tech firms and/or incumbent lenders like most of its competitors. WeLab is a startup that was established a decade ago as an online consumer credit lending platform. It has been operating in mainland China since 2014 and Southeast Asia since 2018. Though the mainland market is and will remain important for WeLab, its interest in Southeast Asia – Indonesia in particular – shows the company has a regional vision for its business that contrasts with that of its competitors focused only on Hong Kong and the mainland.
Usually in fintech only the strongest survive and the prolonged global tech slump is testing the war chests and business models alike of even the heaviest of heavyweights. Having raised so much cash in the erstwhile go-go, low-interest rate environment that prevailed from the mid-2010s until about 2021, UK “financial services super app” Revolut looks poised to weather this storm reasonably well.
Cambodia has been on the gray list of the international financial crime watchdog FATF for several years due to its inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls. Gray list designation requires additional levels of compliance for international financial transactions with the kingdom, which while not a dealbreaker for foreign investment in Cambodia, makes it more troublesome than in countries not on the list. As Cambodia emerges from the pandemic, it is eager to be removed from the gray list to help boost its Covid-battered economy, which contracted 3.1% in 2020 and grew just 2.6% in 2021.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, digital banks have sprung up at a rapid rate in recent years. Regulators have ostensibly encouraged the establishment of online-only banks to spur greater competition in the banking sector, which in most markets is dominated by incumbent lenders afflicted with complacency of varying severity.
Historically, Chinese companies seeking to go public overseas have listed in the United States, home to the world’s most liquid capital markets. Nothing can quite compare with listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or Nasdaq. While that remains the case, the fraught U.S.-China relationship has caused Chinese firms to turn their focus to European stock exchanges, especially Switzerland’s SIX. In Europe, Chinese companies can mostly steer clear of geopolitical tensions while still being able to access global investors.
Southeast Asia’s preeminent platform companies are adjusting to a painful new reality: More is not always better. Sea Group, Grab and GoTo have all expanded at a torrid pace amid a free flow of venture capital funding that only recently started to dry up with the end of ultra-low interest rates and the arrival of greater economic uncertainty. The tougher business environment will put to the test their shaky super app value proposition, especially the idea that fintech works best as part of a broader digital services ecosystem rather than as a pure-play business model.
There is a lot of speculation right now about whether India will make good on its promise to cap third-party payment providers’ market share on the United Payments Interface (UPI) at 30%. We argued when the idea was first proposed several years ago that it did not make a lot of sense and would be hard to implement. Now, with December 2022 deadline looming, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which operates UPI, and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) are considering extending the deadline.
The bigger they come, the harder they fall, especially in an industry like crypto that has rapidly become colossal yet still operates largely in the shadows. The abrupt implosion of crypto exchange FTX might be a Lehman moment, or it might be an Enron moment, or it might be something else entirely. It is hard to say at this point.
Hong Kong as Asia’s top crypto hub? Really? That is our reaction to the speculation that the Chinese SAR could beat out Singapore for Asia’s crypto crown that has emerged since Hong Kong officials at Hong Kong Fintech Week announced a public consultation on how retail investors could have a suitable degree of access to digital assets under a new licensing regime. Rules currently limit crypto trades to institutional investors with a portfolio of at least HK$8mn ($1mn). Yet it is hard to see how Hong Kong can chart such a markedly different course on crypto than mainland China.
China’s fintech sector was never the same after November 3, 2020. That was the day Chinese regulators abruptly nixed Ant Group’s mega IPO, a dual Shanghai and Hong Kong listing that was expected to raise US$37 billion and value the Chinese fintech giant at a whopping US$315 billion. The cancellation of Ant’s IPO proved to be the beginning of an extended campaign to curb the dominance of Big Tech in China’s financial services industry.
Kakao’s fintech results continue to be mixed – a tale of two platforms in some respects. Much like its strategic investor and perhaps spiritual guide Alipay, Kakao has developed a digital bank and payments app as two separate units. Thus far, the online lender Kakao Bank has consistently outperformed the e-wallet Kakao Pay, and that held true once again in the third quarter of the year.We have lauded Kakao many times for developing a profitable financial services super app. It is the only company outside of China to achieve such a feat. However, it might be worth considering at this point if the two separate units are sufficiently complementary.
Xiaomi is one of China’s and the world’s largest smartphone makers. But the company is not content with that position – given low margins and extreme competition in the sector – and has long been searching for new avenues of growth. That’s how Xiaomi began to move into fintech several years ago. As it turns out, transitioning from technology hardware into digital financial services is much more challenging than Xiaomi likely imagined.
The Hong Kong financial center lexicon is ever expanding. Depending whom you ask, Hong Kong is an international financial center, Asia’s most important financial center, China’s offshore financial center or some combination of all three. Historically, Hong Kong liked to stay out of politics and thrived on its combination of laissez-faire capitalism, strong, independent legal system and knack for acting as a bridge to the Chinese mainland. Going forward, those factors will remain integral to Hong Kong’s success, but important questions remain about how economic and financial policy choices on the mainland will affect the city’s fortunes.
BNPL, or buy now pay later, is a type of payment option that allows customers to purchase items now and pay for them later in installments. This type of payment option has been gaining popularity in recent years, especially among younger shoppers. In fact, a recent study showed that BNPL usage has increased by 400% among millennials in the past two years.
BNPL first emerged in Asia in 2014 and has since become extremely popular in countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore. In China, for example, the BNPL market is expected to grow from $30 billion in 2020 to $750 billion by 2025. It could be argued that Australia was the epicentre of BNPL in Asia with such previous market leaders including Afterpay and Zip. So, what is driving this massive growth? Let's take a closer look at BNPL in Asia and how it works.
The Philippines recently experienced a setback in its fight against financial crime: The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) declined to remove the Southeast Asian country from its grey list, on which it was placed in June 2021 for having inadequate money-laundering and counterterrorism financing controls. After a two-day plenary in October, Paris-based FATF decided to keep the Philippines on the list along with 22 other jurisdictions.
The newest digital bank in Singapore stealthily came into existence, flying below the radar in contrast to the high-profile race for digital banking licenses that ended with victories by Grab-Singtel, Sea, Ant Group and a consortium headed by China’s Greenland Holdings. Now competing with these four digital banks is Trust Bank, launched in September by Standard Chartered and NTUC FairPrice, Singapore’s largest supermarket chain.
Cambodia became one of the first countries in the world to launch a central bank digital currency (CBDC) in October 2020. As adoption of Cambodia’s blockchain-based retail CBDC Project Bakong proceeded expeditiously, other Southeast Asian countries with similar financial inclusion needs and openness to digitization of financial services were expected to follow suit.
Yet two years after Bakong’s launch, no other ASEAN country has launched a digital fiat currency. As the hype around CBDCs has cooled, Southeast Asian countries are worrying less about being first movers in this nascent field and more about if a CBDC offers them benefits that justify its costs.
Paytm’s path to profitability has always been a bit convoluted given the company’s labyrinthine business lines and its determination to compete in so many retail segments that require regular subsidizing of customers. That said, it enjoys a scale that few – if any – of its competitors can boast, the backing of some very deep-pocketed investors and the ability to raise cash cheaply on India’s stock exchange.
Thailand has never been in a rush to introduce digital banks. After all, the kingdom is neither a financial center like Hong Kong or Singapore, nor does it have a huge unbanked population likes Indonesia and the Philippines. About 81% of Thais have a bank account. However, it is possible that introducing online banks could improve competition in Thailand’s financial sector – and that appears to be one of the key goals of the Bank of Thailand (BoT) as it moves forward on digital banks.
Being placed under increased monitoring by the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) is never welcome news for a country. Besides the reputational damage that comes along with such a designation, there are many practical problems caused by the restrictions that may be put on financial transactions as well as burdensome compliance requirements. Most countries are put on FATF’s gray list due to inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing controls. However, occasionally a country is added to the blacklist – reserved for the countries that pose the most serious financial crime risks – including North Korea and Iran – which is what happened to Myanmar last month.
The proof of the tentative state of Australia’s bid to introduce greater competition into its financial services sector is in the pudding: The country’s big four incumbent lenders have increased in size despite the high-profile launches of different neobanks in recent years. Of that crop of upstarts, the last one left standing is Judo Bank. The others have either collapsed or been acquired. Meanwhile, the big four are arguably stronger than ever.
A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.
Cross-border payments are increasingly characterized by a dynamic and challenging market environment. On the one hand, the market is booming and expected to reach US$156 trillion this year. On the other, traditional international correspondent banking networks are shrinking at the same time that alternative rails that execute payments in real time are increasingly common. Thus, financial institutions (FIs) have more choice than ever, but being able to connect seamlessly to all the rails is not straightforward.
The crypto bear market sure is not slowing down North Korea’s cyber criminals. Chainalysis data show that North Korean hackers stole US$840 million in decentralized virtual currencies from January to May, about US$200 million more than they pilfered in 2020 and 2021 combined. "By any standard, they [North Korea] are a crypto superpower,” former North Korea analyst at the FBI Nick Carlsen told CNET in a recent interview.
Razorpay is the rare fintech unicorn with discipline and focus, as well as a sky-high valuation. Last valued at US$7.5 billion in December 2021, the Bengaluru-based payments gateway is notable for growing through strategic acquisitions and sticking to its B2B focus despite pressure to foray into retail. It is now poised to expand beyond its home market into Southeast Asia.
China’s largest ever tech crackdown has failed to dethrone Alipay and WeChat Pay from their dominance of the country’s fintech sector, even if it has reduced their profitability. For better or worse, the duopoly seems to have staying power, especially in payments, the stickiness of the respective super apps evident. However, there has long been a line of thinking that payments interoperability and the digital renminbi together will pose a threat to the duopoly. Following recent comments by a senior People’s Bank of China (PBoC) official about the need to standardize QR codes, there is renewed speculation that the payments hegemony of China’s fintech juggernauts could be waning.