Financial Industry Blog - Kapronasia

The cryptocurrency industry always runs ahead of regulators while the media builds its narratives based on the stories of exuberant founders and investors. This paradigm helps explain why Singapore has been perceived as the place to be for crypto – “hub” is the word of choice – for several years now even though the city-state’s government has been more modest in its ambitions.

Asia has been fortunate thus far in that the failures of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank have not had a significant impact on its financial sector. While some financial firms in the region had limited exposure to these defunct lenders, it was not enough to pose a serious problem. Indeed, S&P Global Ratings has found that of the 380 banks and nonbank financial institutions that it rates in the region, it does not anticipate any rating actions directly related to the SVB default.

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It was not so long ago that Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) was singing cryptocurrency’s praises and preparing to invest US$500 million in the Thai crypto exchange Bitkub. Alas, it was not meant to be. The crypto market cratered, and one of the kingdom’s largest lenders thought better of betting so big on a sector of financial services with so much inherent risk. SCB is now pivoting to what is turning out to be familiar territory for incumbent lenders in Asia: digital banking.

After four years, Cambodia has finally been removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), indicating the watchdog no longer sees the kingdom as a country at a heightened risk of money laundering and terrorism financing. It’s an achievement for Cambodia to celebrate, especially given that it coincides with the imminent end of the coronavirus pandemic and a resumption of normal international business and travel links.

Despite Covid-19’s impact on the global economy, the steady pivot to digital financial services has helped fintech and the overall financial services industry emerge from the pandemic relatively unscathed. Indeed, during the low-interest rate environment of the past few years, fintech valuations increased dramatically across nearly every market segment, especially in certain areas like crypto.

What goes up, most come down, even in a huge country with significant financial inclusion needs. In recent years, Indonesia has been a hotspot for fintech investment, and that remains true, relatively speaking, but Southeast Asia’s largest economy is seeing a slowdown as investors tighten their belts and it begins to sink in that the digital banking sector may be overly crowded.

China’s payments market has been gradually opening to foreign competition in recent years for different reasons. On the one hand, the Chinese government is wary of allowing a couple of tech giants to indefinitely monopolize a market worth US$3.5 billion at the end of 2022, according to Daxue Consulting. On the other, financial services is one sector of the economy in which Beijing wants more foreign investment. It is against this backdrop that we should evaluate the prospects of Airwallex in China now that the Australian-founded and Hong Kong-based firm has secured an e-payments license for the China market.

Sea Group surprised many of us with its swing to profitability in the fourth quarter, the first time the Singaporean company ever recorded positive net income. The company is much better known for losing money than making it. In the fourth quarter, Sea made a profit of US$422.8 million, compared to a loss of US$616.3 million in the same period a year earlier.

Given the competition it faces from Singapore, Hong Kong cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Over the past few years, Singapore has become a bigger fintech hub than Hong Kong, an increasingly important location for the regional headquarters of both multinational and Chinese companies, and is also quietly attracting high-net worth individuals to set up family offices.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

It can be hard to separate the hype from reality when it comes to Web3. After all, on the one hand, it is being heralded as “the future of the internet” and on the other, its actual definition remains fluid.

We reckon Silvergate wishes it had never served as FTX’s bank. The collapse of the once mighty crypto exchange has had massive ripple effects across the entire decentralized digital currency ecosystem. In the last three months of 2022, investors pulled out US$8 billion in deposits from the bank given its heavy exposure to FTX and it posted a loss of US$1 billion in the fourth quarter of the year. Silvergate’s stock is trading at around US$5.40 a share, down 95% from a year ago.

Can what works for digital payments in India work globally? That is the most pressing question today for the National Payment Corporation of India’s (NPCI) United Payment Interface (UPI) payment rail, the most successful initiative of its kind. While many fintech success stories have come entirely from the private sector, UPI shows that public-private digital financial inclusion efforts can bear fruit when they are implemented well. Having achieved dominance domestically, UPI is now keen to expand overseas.

Forgive us for being a bit skeptical about Revolut’s swing to profitability. It took an awful long time for the company to release its 2021 financial report (we’re now in 2023), and when it finally did, the £26.3m profit the company reported was less remarkable than the fact the company’s auditor could not verify £477 million in revenue from subscriptions, cards, foreign exchange and wealth activities.

Japan’s affinity for cash has made it a relative laggard in adopting digital payments, especially compared to neighbors like Korea and China. Japan only broke the 30% milestone for cashless payments in 2021, partially due to the pandemic. In contrast, Korea was almost 94% cashless in 2020, while China was not far behind at 83%, according to the World Economic Forum.

2022 was a year characterized by slower fintech funding in most parts of the world, especially East Asia, where it had previously been growing expeditiously. East Asia’s premier fintech hub of Singapore, however, managed to buck the trend with funding hitting a three-year high of US$4.1 billion, up from US$3.4 billion the previous year, according to a new report by KPMG.

Most Asian countries are mulling the creation of a central bank digital currency (CBDC), but only China and Cambodia have launched one. We think that CBDCs make the most sense for countries with pressing financial inclusion needs, and with that in mind, the launch of Laos’s first CBDC pilot led by the same Japanese blockchain company that developed Cambodia’s Project Bakong can be viewed as a positive development.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

Large banks have long dominated cross-border payments in Asia Pacific thanks to their control of traditional correspondent banking networks and until recently, the lack of viable competitors. Banks have been particularly dominant in B2B payments as the barrier to entry is higher than in the retail segment.

When Singapore announced the winners of four digital banking licenses in December 2020, one name stood out because most of us did not recognize it: Greenland Financial Holdings. To say the Shanghai-based real estate company Greenland was a “dark horse” candidate for a license would be an understatement. It was not even widely known that the company and its blockchain trade finance partner Linklogis had thrown their hats in the ring. Since winning the license, the two companies have named their digital bank “Green Link Digital Bank.”

Meta makes almost all of its revenue from advertising. The company has long known it needs a new engine of revenue growth, but it waited too long to introduce payments and explore fintech in general.

In Asia, where fintech growth has generally been much faster than in Meta’s home market of the United States, the company has faced market barriers in some cases and intense competition overall. At this point, it may be able to gain some payments market share in certain Asian countries with WhatsApp Pay, but it will be an uphill climb.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.

The advent of proxy-enabled national real-time payment (RTP) systems has become an integral part of Asia Pacific’s digital financial services market landscape in recent years, driven by central bankers’ determination to make financial flows faster, more efficient and more widely accessible. Southeast Asian countries have been among the most proactive in the development of such real-time payment systems, which have been rolled out domestically first and then gradually expanded into the cross-border space.

To answer the question posed in the title, yes and no. Yes, Chinese sensor maker Hesai Group recently raised US$190 million in the largest U.S. IPO by a Chinese firm in 15 months, but it may have been a one-off event given investors are especially eager for exposure to the red-hot electric vehicle (EV) market. No, we do not think this yet portends a reversal of the slow deal pipeline for Chinese companies in U.S. capital markets. The underlying U.S.-China relationship remains too troubled for that kind of dramatic shift.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a leading fintech hub of the Middle East, with one of the region’s most dynamic startup ecosystems. From a regulatory standpoint, it is also taking a leading role, with big plans for both cryptocurrency and a central bank digital currency (CBDC). While many countries have adopted one or the other, the UAE is one of the few that seems open to both.

As the most cash-loving advanced economy in Asia, Japan has not historically been eager to digitize its financial services sector – with a few exceptions. One of those is Rakuten Bank, which launched in the twilight of Web 1.0 back in the year 2000. At 23 years of age, Rakuten Bank must be one of the oldest digital lenders in Asia, if not the oldest. Gradually, other online banks are entering the Japanese market to compete with Rakuten.

A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle

Mobile wallets are increasingly a preferred payment method across Asia Pacific, from China to Southeast Asia to Australia. Though e-wallet use in the region was growing steadily prior to the pandemic, the abrupt shift to online and contactless commerce in early 2020 supercharged mobile wallet adoption. This has important implications for Southeast Asia – where many people remain unbanked or underbanked and credit cards have yet to gain a strong foothold outside of Singapore and Malaysia.

China’s launch of the digital yuan has prompted a scramble in Northeast Asia among central banks to assess the merits of CBDCs. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all at different stages of CBDC testing that they likely never would have begun if it were not for Beijing’s determination to develop a digital fiat currency. That begs an important question: Does the rest of Northeast Asia need CBDCs? After all, the respective initiatives of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are inherently reactive, in contrast to Beijing’s proactive approach.

Japan’s largest bank is increasingly looking to digital finance in Southeast Asia as an avenue for growth, as its home market is mature, slow to digitally transform and constrained to some degree by an ageing population. In contrast, Southeast Asia’s largest countries still have ample low-hanging fruit, especially Indonesia, a key area of focus for MUFG.

What crypto bear market? North Korea stole a record amount of digital assets in 2022 despite the industry facing unprecedented difficulties. Perhaps the Hermit Kingdom knows something others do not and is betting all that purloined crypto will appreciate handsomely in the years to come. Or maybe it’s just easier for the country’s formidable cybercriminals to pilfer digital assets than other types of money given that the crypto industry continues to operate in the shadows. Whatever the reason, Pyongyang made off with a quite haul last year.

One of our favorite ironies about digital banking in Asia Pacific is that incumbent banks have a growing role in the segment, from Hong Kong to Singapore to Taiwan to Australia. It wasn’t supposed to be this way – at least not to our knowledge. What ever happened to good old-fashioned scrappy startup-driven disruption? With that in mind, we turn our attention to two digital lenders that can technically be classified as startups, but are backed by Standard Chartered, a huge incumbent lender operating in 59 countries that earns most of its revenue in Asia.

Singapore has long been seen as the Switzerland of Asia, a pro-business, largely neutral state with a huge financial services sector catering to an international clientele. Like Switzerland, Singapore is an integral part of the surrounding region yet also has a strong independent streak and never leans too far to one geopolitical side.

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