Singapore's race with Hong Kong to become Asia's fintech hub is heating up as the city-state mulls issuing licenses for virtual banks. Both cities have long been major regional banking centers. With Hong Kong increasingly reliant on business from mainland China, Singapore has a chance to capture more regional business, especially from Asean.
Less than two years ago, China was the world's virtual-currency capital by trading volume. On the eve of the great crypto crackdown in September 2017, China accounted for 90% of the world's Bitcoin trading. Miners capitalized on cheap electricity rates in far-flung provinces to churn out as many digital coins as their power supplies permitted. Crypto bulls lauded Beijing's apparent embrace of distributed ledger technology and decentralization.
As it turns out, the celebration was premature. In a move to control what it perceives as systemic financial risk, Beijing has been gradually squeezing the life out of the China crypto market. The Chinese government has banned ICOs and the use of fiat currency in virtual-currency purchases as well as blocked related websites. Recently, it began working to eliminate crypto mining. At the same time, the WeChat super app banned crypto trading effective May 31.
The Philippines is preparing to implement new legislation for mobile payments as it steps up efforts to digitalize its financial system. In a statement, the Philippines' central bank said that the National Payment Systems Act (NPSA) would support the development of a mobile payment system that can serve as the "third pillar of central banking." The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) sees such as a system as crucial for controlling systemic risk and driving sustainable economic growth.
Manila aims to create a level playing field for incumbents and fintechs under one overarching set of payments regulations, officials say. The Duterte administration believes the NPSA will create the right conditions for healthy competition in the finance sector, they say.
As a near developed country with high financial inclusion, Malaysia is an outlier in Southeast Asia. Like its rich neighbor Singapore, Malaysia's need for fintech is less pressing than poorer underbanked countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia or Myanmar. Fintech platforms can facilitate smoother banking for Malaysians, but aren't viewed as a necessity in the country yet. After all, 92% of the population has a bank account and credit cards have a strong foothold.
Axiata Group's Boost digital wallet, established in early 2018, is one of the first Malaysian fintechs to have a demonstrable impact on the country's financial system. Boost's executives say that it is Malaysia's premier digital wallet, with 4 million registered users and 80,000 merchant touchpoints. From January-December 2018, Boost users' average monthly transactions grew fourteenfold, the company says.
The WeChat super app is perhaps the best example of a made-for-China digital ecosystem that struggles beyond the Great Firewall. It's essential in China for communication with colleagues and friends, ride hailing, day-to-day purchases and online banking. WeChat puts all that and more at your fingertips - and it's not like you have a choice anyway. The competition is blocked. But outside the Chinese mainland - where there are lots of other messaging apps - WeChat's only good for one thing: keeping in touch with people back there.
Formerly one of Asia's poorest countries, Bangladesh has made remarkable economic progress in recent years. Today, it has a higher GDP per capita than its neighbor Pakistan as well as Cambodia and Myanmar. This year, it is likely to be Asia's fastest growing economy: The Asian Development Bank forecasts annual GDP growth to reach 8%, while the World Bank expects growth of 7.3%.
Yet the development of Bangladesh's financial sector has not kept pace with that of the overall economy. Among the country's 163 million people, 75% (122 million) are unbanked. Smartphone penetration, meanwhile, is forecast to reach 75% by 2021, while the population is young and open to mobile banking. Cash still accounts for 94% of transactions, according to the United Nations, while no credit or debit card companies have established a significant presence. Therein lies a strong opportunity for fintechs.
An increasing number of fintechs are entering the Australian market, posing a growing challenge to the country's banking incumbents. In April, Judo became the second Australian challenger bank to receive a license this year after Volt Bank in January. Two additional neo-banks, Xinja and 86 400, have applied for their banking licenses and are awaiting the regulator's decision.
With a banking license, Judo can operate without restrictions and is well poised to compete against incumbents. The four heavyweights that dominate the Australian banking market, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac Banking Corp, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and National Australia Bank, have come under increasing criticism following a misconduct probe into the nation's finance industry that revealed occurrences of bribery to win mortgage business and fees charged to deceased account holders, among other malfeasance.
Indonesia's super-app Go-Jek has borrowed a page out of both Uber and WeChat's books on its way to hallowed decacorn status - valuation of US$10 billion. Like Uber, Go-Jek began as a humble ride-hailing app. It soon expanded into food delivery, just as Uber did with Uber Eats. Go-Jek then added digital banking services as China's Tencent did with WeChat Pay and WeBank. One of Go-Jek's goals is to gain a strong foothold in internet banking as Tencent has in China. Singapore-based Grab (in the Indonesian market through its stake in Ovo) has a similar plan, and just might be a match for Go-Jek. What about Indonesia's banking incumbents though? They can't just stand by idly while the super apps eat their lunch.
Among Asian countries, Pakistan is a relatively slow adopter of fintech, but it also has great need for easy-to-access digital financial services. Pakistan has a population of more than 210 million people, just 7% who have a bank account. High banking infrastructure costs have excluded most people from the formal financial system.There are several factors that make Pakistan an especially promising future fintech market. First, Pakistan's smartphone penetration is forecast to reach 50% by 2020 - that's more than 105 million potential customers. Second, Pakistan is one of the youngest countries in the world. 64% of the population is younger than 30 and 29% is aged 15-29, according to the United Nations' National Human Development Report. Young people are typically more willing to bank with their smartphones.
The Ant Financial empire just keeps expanding. In the past five years, the Alibaba subsidiary has become China's paramount fintech player, offering a suite of digital financial services from simple online banking to wealth-management services powered by artificial intelligence. Ant is now moving into health insurance with a product that has already signed up 50 million users and is aiming to have 300 million within two years. There's one small caveat, however: Ant says that it's not selling health insurance. To do that, it would need permission from China's regulators. Instead, the product is referred to as "a health aid plan."
The National Bank of Cambodia will become one of the first banks in the world to integrate blockchain technology into its national payments system in the second half of the year. The Cambodian government aims to use distributed ledger technology to strengthen banking system efficiency and boost financial inclusion in what is still one of Asean's poorest countries.
South Korea's challenger banks face an increasingly tough competitive and regulatory environment despite having accrued a considerable user base. Kakao Bank, operated by Korean mobile messaging giant Kakao, and K bank, led by telecommunications firm KT, aim to offer a wider array of banking services, but past missteps could prevent them from securing the approval of Korea's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC). At the same time, several new virtual banks are expected to enter the Korean market later this year.
Foreign banks have a negligible presence in China, the world's largest consumer market. Research by KPMG has found that foreign banks hold about 1.3 % of China's domestic banking assets as of late 2017, compared to roughly 2.4% a decade earlier. Brokerages have not fared better. In 2015, UBS Securities and JPMorgan First Capital ranked 95th and 120th, respectively, among China's 125 brokerages by net income, according to the Securities Association of China.
China's Big Four state-owned banks, renowned for their massive market capitalization and close ties to the Chinese government, have long played a key role in the PRC's traditional financial system. An important challenge they - Bank of China (BOC), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) China Construction Bank (CCB) and Agricultural and Commercial Bank of China (ACBC) - face today is developing a digital-first strategy. Among the four, only CCB has has set up a dedicated fintech unit.
With a young population of more than 100 million, the Philippines is one of the most exciting Asean markets for fintechs. Just 34% of Filipinos have bank accounts, according to the World Bank, which means fintechs can play a leading role in the government's financial inclusion efforts. The Philippines is setting up a digital national identity system which should boost credit access for the underbanked. Once registered, residents will be given a 12-digit PhilSys Number that will be used as a digital identity across different platforms. Authorities plan to sign up 7 million Filipinos in 2019 and an additional 20 million in 2020 once the formal application process starts. By 2023, the government expects to have completed registration for all Filipino citizens and resident aliens.
Malaysia may launch virtual banks by the third quarter of 2020 in a bid to boost its fledgling fintech sector and improve banking services for its people. Observers expect that the launch is imminent now that Bank Negara Malaysia has said that virtual banking license requirements will be announced by year-end.
Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic markets for fintech. It has a young, connected population, a fast-growing economy and millions of unbanked people. In 2017, just 40% of Vietnam's adults (defined as 15 years or older) had a bank account, according to the World Bank. Investment in Vietnam's fintech startups reached $117 million in 2018, according to startup accelerator program Topica Founder Institute.
China may be the only country in the world able to stamp out cryptocurrency while repurposing its underlying blockchain technology. Decentralization becomes centralized under this scenario, as private enterprises implement blockchain solutions in line with central government directives. It's a bit like the "socialist market economy." The key to success here is acceptance of seemingly contradictory principles, one of Beijing's specialties.
China's UnionPay is stepping up European expansion in a bid to capture business from Chinese outbound tourism and corporate travel. The Chinese payments giant has established a partnership with Barclay's, which processes almost half of the UK's credit and debit card transactions, that will allow 110,000 UK merchants to accept UnionPay beginning from the summer of 2019.
India's fintech sector has surged over the past few years, with deal value reaching $2 billion in 2018. India now has more than 2,000 fintech startups, compared to less than 750 in 2014. Most Indian fintech startups are in the payments and lending segments, a boon for the subcontinent's under-banked population. Given the importance of fintech to financial inclusion in India, Delhi is preparing to launch a regulatory sandbox that would ensure that the industry develops stably. In late March, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Shaktikanta Das said that the RBI would publish the guidelines for the creation of a fintech regulatory sandbox in the next two months.
As one of Southeast Asia's preeminent markets, Indonesia offers strong opportunities for fintechs. With a population of 265 million, it is larger than Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia combined. In 2018, the Indonesian economy expanded 5.18%, beating economists' forecasts.
One of the great ironies about China for multinational firms is that they feel they have to be there, but the gatekeeper doesn't always let them in. This paradigm is especially evident in the financial services sector, where foreign firms control less than 2% of the market 18 years after China entered the World Trade Organization and promised to dismantle trade and investment barriers.
Thailand's Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has approved the kingdom's first initial coin offering portal (ICO) and is expected to issue guidelines for securities token offerings (STO) applications in the near future. ICO portals are used primarily to conduct due diligence.
In a few short years, Japan has become one of the most crypto-friendly countries in the world, pushing ahead with plans to integrate distributed ledger technology into its financial system despite rising skepticism about virtual currency's future. Even massive hacks of its crypto exchanges haven't affected Japan's determination to become a crypto nation. The Japanese government has handled the skullduggery in stride, strengthening systemic security measures rather than resorting to draconian crackdowns.
In less than a decade, Alibaba and Tencent have built the world's foremost mobile internet ecosystem in China. Their success derives from both innovative business models and unflappable determination. To be sure, they arrived at the right time - the rise of smartphones - but good timing isn't enough to prevail in a market as cutthroat as China's. Of course, Alibaba and Tencent also haven't had to contend with foreign competition. Would they have been as successful without the Great Firewall?
Singapore is an ascendant digital finance hub, in 2018 attracting $365 million in fintech investment. That investment was double the amount raised a year earlier. Despite its small size, the city-state is still the No. 5 fintech market in APAC by funds raised.
Vietnam plans to roll out a pilot peer-to-peer (P2P) lending scheme to boost financial inclusion in one of Southeast Asia's fastest growing economies. The pilot program will permit P2P lending firms to serve as intermediaries between lenders and borrowers, but they will be restricted from fundraising activity.
In Asia, digital wallets are increasingly where the money is for ride-hailing companies. Once they have a critical mass of customers using their app for taxis, the companies launch a suite of financial services people can access from the convenience of their smartphones. Didi Chuxing is going this route in China, while Singapore-based Grab and Indonesia-based Go-Jek are launching digital wallets across Southeast Asia.
Paradoxes abound in the Chinese economy, as the long arm of the state regularly collides with resilient entrepreneurial activity. Nowhere is this more apparent than the fintech segment, where Beijing is repurposing technology designed to facilitate freewheeling financial activity as an instrument of state control. We would like to ask enigmatic Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto to comment - if only we knew how to get a hold of him.
Across Asia, there is a race to go cashless as financial digitalization accelerates. Financial services companies want to capture business from digital payment adoption, while regulators want to reduce costs by printing less paper money and minting fewer coins. Consumers want convenient payment options.
Singapore's Grab is rolling out a suite of digital financial services in a bid to become Southeast Asia's preeminent app. The services including micro-lending, micro-insurance and payments. Like China's ubiquitous messaging app WeChat has done, Grab wants to build an ecosystem where consumers can bank, order food and shop - not just chat and hail rides. Asean's large underbanked population makes it an attractive market for fintechs.
Virtual currency adoption looks set to accelerate in Taiwan as the island plans to establish a mechanism for security token offerings by mid-year. The move is in line with Taiwan's launch of a fintech regulatory sandbox that allows firms to experiment with novel business models but not fall afoul of existing regulations.
Myanmar is an intriguing market for fintechs. It is one of the fastest growing of all Asian economies. Annual GDP growth has exceeded 6% in recent years. The government has embraced digitalization and to a certain degree, foreign investment, a remarkable turnaround for a country that had been closed to the world for decades.
In hope of a sustained stock market rally, U.S. President Donald Trump has been pushing for a rapid conclusion to the trade war he started with China almost nine months ago. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Advisor Larry Kudlow, ever mindful of investors' concerns, reportedly have The Donald's ear. Trump's patience with the hardline approach of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer may be wearing thin, people close to the White House say.