Some things just weren't meant to be, like peer-to-peer lending in China. What began as a legitimate way to support financial inclusion through internet finance morphed into a scam-ridden zombie industry. Beijing has moved to shut down the majority of P2P lenders that haven't imploded on their own. The industry is going the way of crypto, another member of the fintech family that ran afoul of China's regulators. In a recent Sina Finance commentary, former Chongqing mayor Huang Qifan gave a scathing criticism of P2P lending, likening it to a digital version of traditional pyramid schemes he says have long existed in rural China.
Ant Group, formerly Ant Financial, has big ambitions for Southeast Asia. By taking strategic stakes in ascendant fintech startups across the region, Ant hopes to gain a foothold in the region's most important economies and perhaps lay the foundation for a regional payments ecosystem. If Ant's bid for a Singapore digital wholesale bank license is successful, the Hangzhou-based company will be poised to serve SMEs in the city-state and could eventually expand to other key regional economies where the financial inclusion rate is lower.
Macau is the only place in China's territory where gambling is legal. Chinese regulators want all the gaming in one place where they can keep a watchful eye over it. That's why the regulators don't like online casinos. Those are much harder to monitor. Located offshore, primarily in Southeast Asia, they aren't subject to Chinese law, even though Beijing forbids its citizens from gambling online. For Chinese authorities, the primary concern is that Chinese people will use online casinos to circumvent China's strict capital controls, which limit overseas remittances to US$50,000 a year. In some cases, criminal activity is involved.
The pandemic-induced economic downturn could be a catalyst for needed financial reform in China, where foreign firms have struggled to gain market share. The Chinese economy contracted in the first quarter and will likely grow just 1.2% for the year, according to the IMF. A new UN report estimates that FDI could drop 40% this year, falling below US$1 trillion for the first time since 2005. At the same time, China's trade surplus is narrowing. Capital outflows are rising despite stringent controls, reaching US$50 billion in March and April, according to Nikkei Asian Review. Capital inflows from foreign investors in the financial sector could help stabilize the renminbi.
Hong Kong's virtual banks will not easily unseat entrenched incumbents, but the newcomers are already succeeding in one respect: They are forcing traditional banks to up their digital game. This trend started well before the coronavirus pandemic, but has accelerated as concerns about the virus impede customer visits to physical branches. The virus is acting as a catalyst for digital transformation among Hong Kong's incumbent banks just as the virtual banks are launching.
Brazil's Nubank is growing so fast it's hard to keep up. In June, Nubank hit the 25-million customer milestone, up from 15 million in October 2019. Most neobanks talk up the need to build scale and grow fast, but Nubank is one that walks the walk. The Sao Paolo-based company is the largest independent digital bank in the world. Granted, it did not happen overnight. Nubank has been around since 2013. But the Brazilian neobank, currently valued at US$10 billion, appears to have found the secret sauce.
Southeast Asia's two most valuable tech startups are determined to reinvent themselves, transforming from ride-hailing giants into digital banks. Singapore's Grab is leading in every Southeast Asian market but one: Indonesia, which happens to be where its arch-rival Gojek is based. Having recently received investments from Facebook and PayPal, Gojek looks to have the edge in the region's largest economy. But Grab is determined to prevail there. That's why the Grab-backed digital wallet Ovo is reportedly planning to merge with Dana, which is backed by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial. Together, Ovo and Dana might be able to give Gojek's fintech arm GoPay a run for its money.
South Korea's K bank, one of three licensed virtual banks in the country, is planning to reopen in July if it can secure additional capital. K bank suspended most of its services about a year ago amid fundraising travails. It would be an impressive feat for the bank to resolve those capital issues amid the pandemic-induced downturn. South Korea entered a technical recession in the second quarter with GDP expected to contract 2% compared to the January-March period, according to the Bank of Korea.
Indonesia's Gojek is one of Asia's most ambitious unicorns. It leads the ride-hailing and food-delivery markets in Indonesia, and is steadily increasing its digital banking services. In June, it filed trademarks for new business entities that could pave the way for expansion into corporate services, live-video conferencing and electronics repair. Yet the company remains unprofitable eight years after its founding. Gojek needs to boost the stickiness of its app and speed up monetization. That's why it's a wise move for the company to partner with Facebook and PayPal, which took took respective 2.4% and 0.6% stakes in Gojek's fintech arm GoPay, a regulatory filing shows. The U.S. tech giants' investments were part of a fundraising round that reportedly values at Gojek at more than US$10 billion.
In May the European Commission named Cambodia as one of 12 nations at a high risk for money laundering and terrorism financing. The EC's move is a setback for Cambodia, which aims to attract foreign investment and develop a thriving digital economy. The kingdom will likely be added to a list that includes countries such as North Korea Iran, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. The EC said that it sought to better align with the international money-laundering watchdog FATF, which put Cambodia on its gray list in February 2019 for having "significant deficiencies" in its anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing regime.
Judo Bank has become the first of Australia's neobanks to reach a AU$1 billion valuation and just the second so-called fintech "unicorn" in the country after Tencent-backed Airwallex. Investors shrugged off the coronavirus pandemic and economic doldrums - Australia is headed for its first recession since 1991- and handed Judo an additional AU$230 million in May. Melbourne-based Judo has now raised a total of AU$770 million in equity over three fundraising rounds. Among Judo's existing investors: the Abu Dhabi Capital Group, Bain Capital Credit, Ironbridge, Myer Family Investments, OPTrust, SPF Investment Management, and Tikehau Capital.
Investors appear to have adjusted to a new normal in Hong Kong, one characterized by political unrest and economic uncertainty. As the coronavirus ebbs, protests are returning to Asia's preeminent financial hub. The former British colony remains mired in a steep recession. And yet, large Chinese tech firms are pushing ahead with initial public offerings and secondary share listings on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. At the current rate, Hong Kong could be the world's hottest IPO market in 2020.
Facebook's virtual currency initiative is getting a much needed boost with the addition of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund Temasek to the Libra Association. Temasek is the first member based in Asia and brings the city-state's fintech prowess to the table. Over the past decade, Singapore has emerged as Asia's preeminent fintech hub. Its government has approached fintech as an enabler of a wider variety of financial services rather than a mere disruptor of the status quo. If Libra is going to succeed, it will need to move in that direction.
German neobank unicorn N26 has a well earned reputation for audacity. In July 2019, its co-founder Maximilian Tayenthal famously (or infamously) told The Financial Times that "profitability is not one of our core metrics." If we had to sum up the fintech bubble's ethos in one line, that just might be it. In that same interview, Tayenthal highlighted N26's "deep-pocketed investors," which include Peter Thiel - the smart money, at least based on his bets on Facebook and PayPal. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, investors handed N26 another US$100 million in early May, while its valuation held steady at US$3.5 billion.
On May 17, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) Shanghai branch announced the launch of the Shanghai Fintech Innovation Regulatory Trial, which follows the trial in Beijing last December. In addition, the Shanghai Fintech Industry Alliance (SFIA) was established to encourage innovative fintech programs in the Yangtze River Delta region.
Regulatory sandboxes provide fintech firms a controlled and supervised environment to test innovative products, services, or business models. Fintech innovation is an important driver of growth in the financial industry, especially in China. However, potential risks need to be addressed, notably customer security and data protection. At the same time, regulatory uncertainty could dissuade investors from investing in a company. For their part, meanwhile, regulators need to develop a deep understanding of innovative applications so that they are able to effectively regulate new business models and technologies. Thus, regulators use a regulatory sandbox to achieve a balance between technological innovation and risk prevention, so as to implement more universal policies.
In mid-January, the PBOC announced the first batch of trial applications, including the Internet of Things, APIs, smart tokens and trusted execution environment. Six projects have been approved to join in the trial scheme in Beijing, including API open banking (CITIC aiBank), supply chain finance based on IoT (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China), automatic loans for micro-credit products (Agricultural Bank of China), mobile POS (China UnionPay, Xiaomi and JD digits), Zhiling products managing smart token (CITIC Bank, UnionPay, Duxiaoman payment and Ctrip) and instant online loan (Bank of Ningbo).
In late April, the PBOC extended the second batch of sandbox experimental cities to Shanghai, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Suzhou, as well as the Xiong’an New Area, a much-anticipated new economic zone. The Shanghai trial will guide licensed financial institutions and technology companies to join in the scheme, with the aim to protect consumers’ rights and assist SMEs with maintaining their operations during the COVID-19 crisis. The Shanghai financial regulator said that it would apply “soft regulatory methods” such as information disclosure, product notice, and social supervision. It will also support the local sandbox to connect with other sandboxes around the world.
Although there are similar products widely available on the market, such as instant internet loans issued by banks or internet loan providers, putting a project into the sandbox can allow it to grow freely without falling afoul of existing regulations, supporting the creation of new business models and helping familiarize regulators with them.. However, if a project does not progress fast enough in the sandbox, it may stand little chance of succeeding in the real market.
The British government first developed the concept of the "regulatory sandbox." The UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) launched its innovation program in 2014 and has supported more than 700 firms to test their innovation with real customers in the live market under controlled conditions. The access to regulatory expertise through the sandbox has reduced the time-to-market for firms and potentially lowered related costs. According to the FCA, 90% of the firms in the first cohort have continued towards a wider market launch. And at least 40% of firms that completed testing in cohort 1 received investment during or following their sandbox test.
Across ASEAN, regulatory sandboxes are also playing their role in managing risk in fintech innovation. In Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) launched its fintech sandbox in 2016 to encourage more fintech experimentation and innovation. One company, Inzsure Pte Ltd, was forbidden to continue serving as an insurance broker after the sandbox test.
The Bank of Thailand launched a regulatory sandbox in early 2017 and encouraged innovative companies to develop services and products. In the Thai model, a startup’s innovations stay in the sandbox for a fixed period of 6 to 12 months. Successful businesses after this period can apply for operating licenses.
Hangzhou is to release its Fintech Sandbox rules this week. The detailed establishment plan will be set by Hangzhou Central Sub-branch of PBC, Zhejiang Bureau of CBIRC, Financial Bureau of Zhejiang Province, and Hangzhou Municipal Bureau of Finance.
Meanwhile, in order to accelerate financial and trade integration of the “Greater Bay Area”, the PBOC announced the release of the “Opinions Concerning Financial Support for the Establishment of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area” on May 14. The PBOC produced the Opinions in collaboration with the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE). The options include plans to promote a cross-border regulatory sandbox.
These trial projects form part of China’s Fintech Development Plan (2019-2021). According to internet bank XWBank (XinWang Bank), the fintech regulatory trials will test the best regulatory methods and provide corresponding space and system guarantees for fintech innovations based on the “regulatory sandbox” innovative regulation model.
As tensions between the U.S. and China flare up in the financial sector, the future of Chinese fundraising in America's capital markets looks uncertain. Hong Kong has benefited, attracting a growing number of Chinese tech IPOs and secondary share listings from juggernauts like Alibaba and JD.com. Another possible winner in the U.S.-China financial tussle could be London, which began operating the London-Shanghai Stock Connect scheme in 2019.
Chinese investment into Indian fintechs is set to slow following New Delhi's decision to restrict foreign investment from countries with which it shares a land border and more carefully scrutinize new portfolio investors from mainland China and Hong Kong. India's immediate reason to target foreign investment is to forestall opportunistic takeovers during the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected about 152,000 and caused more than 4,000 deaths in the subcontinent.
A unicorn cannot thrive on ride hailing alone. That's why Indonesia's Gojek is betting on fintech to bolster its fortunes. Its arch-rival Grab is taking a similar road. Starting with payments, the ride-hailing giants aim to transform themselves into bonafide financial services providers, monetizing customer data by using it to create different digital banking products. Despite the pandemic, Gojek managed to raise another US$1.2 billion in March to support its expansion efforts. Gojek then acquired the Indonesian payments startup Moka and established a tie-up with the fintech Pluang, which offers digital gold investments.
Neobank valuations have long seemed inflated given how few of the banks are profitable. Now the £2 billion valuation of loss-making UK challenger bank Monzo could be adjusted downward as its business slows amid the global economic downturn. Monzo is considered one of Europe's top challenger banks along with Revolut and N26. In mid-May, The Financial Times reported that Monzo is close to reaching a deal with investors that would value it at roughly £1.25 billion, a 40% decrease from the £2 billion valuation it achieved in June 2019.
At first blush, UBS's bid for a digital bank license in China looks rather ambitious. Beijing doesn't give them out too often. In fact, no foreign lender in China has one. There are just four licensed digital banks in China: Ant Financial's MYBank, Tencent's WeBank, Baidu's AiBank and China Citic Bank. Retail banking has long been the holy grail just out of reach for foreign banks in China. Yet UBS sees a chance to develop a digital-first wealth management business in the country as Beijing prepares legislation that could open up the market to more foreign competition.
Tencent has paid US$300 million for a 5% stake in Australia's Afterpay in a bid to strengthen its global fintech services and expand into smart retail. Afterpay allows shoppers to pay in four installments for purchases online or in retail stores. It claims to have 7.3 million users globally.
The past year has been one of the hardest in memory for Hong Kong, which has been in recession since the fourth quarter of 2019. While the city has contained the coronavirus relatively well, it still faces political turmoil with no end in sight. You wouldn't know that from the state of its IPO market though, which had the most new listings among all stock exchanges in the first quarter and is gathering momentum faster in the second quarter than any other major index.
The Hong Kong IPO market has picked up considerably since early May. Suzhou-based biotech firm Peijia Medical listed on the HKEX on May 15, raising HK$2.3 billion (US$302 million) that it will use to develop its product pipeline of heart valve and vascular repair devices. Peijia Medical's shares jumped 74% in its first day of trading, the best debut performance this year so far for an IPO over US$50 million.
Singapore's Grab reckons it can become the first loss-making ride-hailing firm to reinvent itself as a viable digital bank. So confident is Grab in its fintech endeavor that it has applied for a digital full bank license in Singapore with telecoms giant Singtel. If Grab succeeds as a digital bank, it will be an outlier. China's Didi launched a fintech unit in early 2019, but has yet to make any progress in digital banking. Uber too thinks fintech can help it monetize and created a dedicated division about a year ago. Like Didi's, it has gone nowhere yet. And of course, there's Gojek, an Indonesia-based variant of Grab. It too is dabbling in digital banking.
The coronavirus pandemic is a day of reckoning for overvalued, overhyped and overextended fintechs. With a "go big or go home" ethos, these firms are finding that amid the virus-induced downturn they may have nowhere to go. Not so for South Korea's Viva Republica, the country's only fintech unicorn, which has been steadily building a business in its home market for nearly a decade. In fact, Viva Republica's mobile banking platform Toss just broke even in April for the first time in its five-year history. That's impressive given that the South Korean economy is in recession. South Korea's GDP contracted contracted 1.4% year-on-year in the first quarter, its worst performance since the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
Myanmar is gradually opening its banking sector to foreign investment in a bid to boost the economy. International lenders see strong potential in the Southeast Asian nation's underdeveloped financial industry. Myanmar has been one of the region's fastest growing economies in recent years. Thus far, it has not been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic either. In April, the Central Bank of Myanmar approved seven Asian banks to enter the country: Taiwan's Cathay United Bank and Mega International Commercial Bank, South Korea's Industrial Bank of Korea, KB Kookmin Bank and Korea Development Bank, Bank of China Hong Kong and Siam Commercial Bank.
Hong Kong's future as a financial center is increasingly clear: It will be a global fundraising hub for Chinese firms, especially in the technology sector. These days, the biggest Hong Kong IPOs are almost all Chinese tech firms, whether the listings are primary or secondary. Non-Chinese tech firms are more likely to go public in New York or London. Following Alibaba's mammoth secondary share listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in November 2019 - which raised US$13 billion - its arch-rival JD.com is reportedly planning a $US3 billion share sale in Hong Kong this year. Alibaba's primary listing is on the NYSE while JD.com is listed on the Nasdaq.
For Europe's cash-burning neobanks, the current economic downturn is a rude awakening. In March as Europe went into lockdown, the unicorn trio of Revolut, Monzo and N26 saw their growth rate drop by 18% to 36% in their home markets (The UK for the former two and Germany for N26), according to Sifted. These three digital banks - among Europe's most highly valued - have prioritized rapid growth over profitability. They have spent heavily to build scale quickly, assuming they will eventually move into the black on solid revenue-per-user figures. If growth suddenly stalls, their business models start to look less solid.
Indonesia's P2P lending sector has been growing fast for several years now, providing a vital credit channel for cash-strapped consumers and SMEs. In February, online lending increased 225% annually to reach US$6.1 billion, 80% of which was in the P2P segment, according to data compiled by the Indonesian government. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit the country of 267 million, plunging it into a technical recession. While several of the largest P2P lenders are weathering the coronavirus pandemic well, others are not so fortunate. The economic fallout from the virus may end up having a more profound impact on the industry's development than regulatory measures enacted last year to reduce compliance failures and protect consumers.
Malaysia was gradually moving in a cashless direction long before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, forcing it into lockdown from mid-March until early May. The virus just may have accelerated Malaysia's cashless push though, as people out of necessity opted for contactless payments instead of those involving contact. Now, digital wallets are offering new incentives to consumers and merchants, while policymakers are tightening regulations around the use of cash. Malaysia's cashless vision appears to have gotten an unexpected boost from the pandemic.
Internet giants outside of China are trying to create a super app like WeChat, which users rely on widely to chat, buy goods on and offline, and bank. The payments application is the stickiest: Once WeChat became a preferred digital wallet, it had a captive audience for a much wider selection of banking services. For Facebook, which is shut out of China, India offers the chance to build a super app. There are more users of both Facebook and its messaging app WhatsApp in India than anywhere else on earth. Facebook has moved one step closer to that goal following its US$5.7 billion investment for a 9.9% stake in India's telecoms giant Jio, a subsidiary of the juggernaut Reliance Industries.
A growing number of global fintechs are eager to tap China's growing remittances business, the world's second largest after India. Given China's strict controls of money flows, the right local partner is important for gaining access to the market. Otherwise, regulatory hurdles are tough to surmount. In April, Singapore-based digital cross-border payments platform Nium announced it would partner with Geoswift, a counterpart headquartered in Hong Kong that specializes in clearing payments in and out of the Chinese mainland.
The economic downturn fomented by the coronavirus pandemic has been a rude awakening for cash-burning fintech startups. They and their backers are finding that there's a price to pay for championing breakneck growth over profitability. In contrast, fintechs with solid balance sheets, like London-based digital money transfer firm TransferWise (profitable for three years in a row), are poised to pursue targeted expansion. Tapping resilient demand for its cross-border payments services, TransferWise recently inked a partnership with China's Alipay and expanded to the United Arab Emirates.
South Korea is eager to introduce more digital applications into its financial system, but unsure how far it wants to go with digital currency. That goes for not just crypto, but central bank digital currency as well. For now, payments is one fintech segment in which South Korean tech giants are poised to launch new applications.
Libra is the most visible profile prong of Facebook's fintech offensive, but it may not be the most important. Not for now, anyway. U.S. officials and regulators remain circumspect about Facebook's digital currency project. Facebook has a long way to go before it wins their trust. In Asia, Facebook has a seemingly simpler task: Roll out the digital wallet of WhatsApp to monetize its large regional user base, concentrated in India and Indonesia. That's proving to be difficult too though.