As the Sino-US trade war steadily escalates, tensions are inevitably spilling into the financial sector. While much press coverage has focused on the U.S. naming China a currency manipulator - something that hasn't happened since 1994 - there has not been any punitive action following the designation. The decision by Washington looks more like a pointed criticism of China's long-stalled financial reforms. Remember when it was common to hear bankers speculate that China's capital account would be freely convertible by 2020?
Those were the days. Regardless, monetary policy is actually less of a flashpoint in the trade war than compliance. The alleged involvement of three major Chinese banks in the financing of North Korea's nuclear weapons program - in violation of sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom - has the potential to entangle some of China's largest lenders in a new front of the trade war.
Chinese fintech giant Alipay has been on a torrid expansion streak, entering global markets from the U.S. and Europe to Bangladesh and Pakistan. Now Alipay is pushing even further into emerging markets as it establishes a partnership with fintech startup Flutterwave to provide digital payments services between the Middle Kingdom and Africa.
Cambodia is struggling to contain a mounting money laundering problem. In July, authorities seized $7.4 million in cash and detained nine people at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports as part of anti-money laundering (AML) efforts. Cambodian authorities have stepped up AML activity since February when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international money-laundering watchdog, placed Cambodia on its gray list after it found "significant deficiencies" in the kingdom's AML ability.
Cambodia had previously been on FATF's gray list but was removed in 2015 after making some improvements to its AML policies. FATF put Cambodia on the gray list once again in February after the organization concluded the kingdom had never prosecuted a money-laundering case. FATF also found that Cambodia had done little to investigate cases of money laundering and terrorist financing, while the watchdog described the Cambodian judicial system as having "high levels of corruption."
When it comes to Indonesia's digital wallets, Go-Jek's Go-Pay captures many of the headlines. After all, Go-Jek is Indonesia's most prominent unicorn, valued at US$9-10 billion. It's battling Singapore's Grab across Southeast Asia, burning piles of cash as investors rush to join the next round of fundraising. Speculation about a Go-Jek IPO is mounting.
Yet Indonesian consumers prefer a different digital wallet, according to local research firm Snapcart. Data compiled by the Indonesia-based company show that Ovo, backed by Grab and the Lippo Group, is the top Indonesian mobile wallet by a wide margin. Ovo holds a 58% market share, compared to Go-Pay's 23% and Emtek Group and Ant Financial's DANA, a distant third at 6%.
India has one of Asia's most vibrant fintech ecosystems, highlighted by payments unicorn Paytm with a valuation of US$10 billion. In the first quarter of the year, the subcontinent attracted the most VC fintech investment of any country in Asia, beating out digital finance juggernaut China.
Given the excitement surrounding India's fintech scene, it is easy to overlook cash's continued paramountcy in the Indian economy, accounting for 95% of transactions. Indeed, cash not only remains the primary payment method in India, its use is growing. The reason is straightforward: Cash is convenient - especially considering India's large informal economy. The fintech ecosystem must penetrate far deeper into the Indian economy before it can begin to displace cash.
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In early August, Australian challenger bank Judo announced it had completed a second round of equity fundraising that brought in a record $400 million, double the original target of $200 million. In this new round of fundraising, the largest ever for an Australian startup, Bain Capital Credit and Tikehau Capital joined existing shareholders OPTrust, the Abu Dhabi Capital Group, Ironbridge and SPF Investment Management.
For Indonesian ride-hailing giant Go-Jek, the more funding rounds the merrier. As it seeks to gain a leg up on its arch-rival Grab, Go-Jek is tapping a wide variety of investors bullish on the Indonesian decacorn's digital banking prospects. In its latest funding round, the second half of Series F, Go-Jek attracted an estimated $3 billion (the company has not disclosed the actual figure) from investors including top Thai lender Siam Commercial Bank, Visa and three Mitsubishi firms: Mitsubishi Motors, Mitsubishi Corp. and Mitsubishi UFJ Lease & Finance.
The Chinese gambling hub of Macau has a well deserved reputation for illicit activity. Although the territory has prospered in the two decades since returning to Chinese rule, overtaking Las Vegas to become the top gaming destination globally, the sources of its riches have sometimes been questionable. Corrupt officals and businessmen as well as criminal organizations launder money through the territory, taking advantage of its lax regulatory environment. Macau has no currency or exchange controls, while its threshold for reporting transactions in casinos is more than US$62,000, compared to an international standard of US$3,000.
On July 20th, Chinese State Council announced 11 measures to advance the further opening-up of Chinese financial industry to the world. 8 of the 11 policies are related to bond, asset management, and currency brokerage. The momentum of increasing foreign investment will not cease in the foreseeable future but be boosted with the newly released policies.
The Philippines is steadily adopting digital payments as part of a state-led drive to boost financial inclusion. The number of active e-wallet accounts in the country rose 22% annually in 2018 to reach 33 million, according to data compiled by Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the Philippines' Central Bank. E-wallet growth last year edged out credit card growth, which rose 18% to 9.4 million users compared to a year earlier.
The Philippines is poised to reduce its dependency on cash - which accounted for 99% of transactions in 2018 - thanks to high smartphone penetration, strong demand from a large unbanked population and consumer willingness to bank digitally. Additionally, with their low barriers to entry, digital wallets are a good way to support financial inclusion.
Australia Post is the first industry service provider to join the Australian government’s digital identity program and the second organization to be accredited under the Trusted Digital Identity Framework (TDIF) after the Australian Taxation Office. Alongside TDIF is the Australian government’s GovPass program. It allows individuals to verify their digital identity, which then can be used to access a range of government services. If success, the government's digital identity programs may be expanded to the financial services sector in the future.
The Japanese government is leading a global effort to develop an international cryptocurrency payment network similar to the SWIFT system used by banks, according to a recent Reuters report. Citing an anonymous source, the report said that the purpose of the crypto payment network would be to combat money laundering. No details have yet emerged about how the network would function, but it was reportedly approved by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in June.
In the emerging world of super apps, Japan's Line is something of an anomaly. It is neither a wholly domestic phenomenon like China's WeChat nor global like the U.S.'s WhatsApp. It is not a ride-hailing app like Singapore's Grab or Indonesia's Go-Jek. Rather, Line is a quirky messaging app beloved in its home market of Japan as well as in Taiwan and Thailand, where Japanese culture has enduring appeal, and to a lesser extent in Indonesia. Outside of those markets, it is virtually unknown.
WeChat has proven that a messaging app can become a digital wallet and that the road to monetization runs through fintech. Line aims to show that such a platform is viable regionally in Asia. Because Japan remains attached to cash, Line cannot rely on its home market alone. “Fintech itself is a proven monetized model, the only problem is how fast we can secure a meaningful size of users,” Line co-CEO Shin Jung-ho told Bloomberg in a June interview.
Virtual banks are coming to Singapore, but the biggest incumbents have little to fear. Singapore's top three lenders, DBS, UOB and OCBC, have plenty of cash to invest in fintech innovation. What they cannot build independently they can access through tie-ups with startups. For smaller lenders who lack the heavyweights' resources, the virtual banks could pose a tougher challenge. The scope of the challenge will depend on how much freedom the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) gives the new entrants.
Facebook's plans to launch its cryptocurrency Libra in the first half of 2020 have prompted a new round of discussions in China about the merits of virtual currency. If Libra, which is aimed at the enormous global market of 2.38 billion Facebook users (not including China, where Facebook is blocked), were to succeed and China had nothing comparable, it could be left behind in the next wave of digital financial innovation.At the same time, Beijing worries that Libra will further entrench the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. “If the digital currency is closely associated with the U.S. dollar, it could create a scenario under which sovereign currencies would coexist with US dollar-centric digital currencies,” Wang Hexin, research chief of the People's Bank of China, was quoted as saying by The South China Morning Post in a July report.
At a time where China’s financial institutions face increased competition from rising fintech companies, banks in China have been battling with fintechs for market share. The surge of fintech companies have facilitated the process of acquiring loans by providing consumers with an alternative to credit cards. They also do not exclude the unbanked population of the country which is a further competitive advantage for fintech companies. Therefore, banking segments efforts to outdo fintech has forced them to take riskier measures by expanding their lending platform to unsecured loans. Creating incentives for increased consumption has consequently resulted in a higher issuance of credit cards.
Taiwan has a fairly well developed financial industry. This small island has a population of only 24 million in total, but has access to more than 5,000 physical financial institutions. Customers, therefore, are able to enjoy all the banking services provided with ease. Plus, the interest rates on loans in Taiwan are extremely low with only 2.63% APR. The application for a fiduciary loan becomes relatively easy for office workers. Thus, FinTech derivatives such as P2P lending are not previously widely considered.
Imagine you are sick at midnight. You lay in the bed comfortably and consult your private doctor through your smart phone at home. They know your medical history perfectly and give you a personalized prescription online. You don’t need to go to the pharmacy. With a few clicks on an app you purchase drugs and they arrive at your doorstep within an hour and everything is seamless. This is not necessarily a futuristic movie, but rather - reality made possible by PingAn Good Doctor - the largest and artificial intelligence powered mobile medical platform in China.
At first blush, Taiwan has taken a major step forward in its acceptance of virtual currency by issuing regulations specifically for security token offerings (STOs), rather than requiring them to abide by existing securities laws. Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) announced the new regulations in late June and expects to implement them as early as October. The FSC says that the new regulations will benefit startups seeking non-traditional fundraising sources.
WhatsApp has moved one step closer to launching its payment business in India by setting up local data storage facilities, according to India's The Economic Times. As a condition of market entry, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) requires digital payment providers to first set up local data storage facilities and then submit an audit report to the central bank. Market insiders say that WhatsApp Payments is expected to go live with its Unified Payments Interface-based service with ICICI Bank. Services through Axis Bank, HDFC Bank and SBI are likely to follow, they say.
In April, the Hong Kong-based fintech startup WeLab quietly won the former British colony's fourth virtual-banking license. Founded in 2013 by ex-Citibank executive Simon Loong and two other partners, the company has steadily grown over the last six years. It now has 30 million customers in Hong Kong and mainland China as well as a staff 600 strong. The company expects to launch its virtual bank - named WeLab Digital - between October and January.
With the launch of its cryptocurrency Libra, Facebook is diving headfirst into digital banking. The U.S. social-media giant can draw on its massive global network of 2.3 billion users as it forays into finance. Yet Facebook will not be introducing Libra to China, which has the world's largest number of internet users. China blocked Facebook a decade ago and has moved to cripple crypto to control systemic financial risk and discourage capital flight. If Libra is a success, being excluded from it could have major ramifications for China's fintech development. At the very least, Beijing's own fintech system would be further isolated from the rest of the world.
Hong Kong banking giant HSBC can no longer rest on its laurels: The virtual banks are coming. With its deep local roots and wealthy customer base, HSBC has long been the dominant retail bank in the city. With the arrival of internet-only banks backed by the likes of tech giants such as Alibaba and Tencent, HSBC faces serious native digital competition for the first time.
KoinWorks, Indonesia's largest P2P lending platform, has raised US$16.5 million in its Series B funding round, signaling strong interest for alternative lending sources in Southeast Asia's largest economy. Established in 2016, KoinWorks caters to the underbanked and unbanked alike in Indonesia, whose scant credit profiles do not sit well with traditional lenders.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not known as a friend of the crypto community. With his recent reelection, virtual currency's future in India, the world's second most populous country and its soon-to-be No. 3 consumer market after the U.S. and China, looks uncertain at best. At worst, India could flat out crypto and criminalize its possession and use.
The Vietnamese mobile wallet Vimo and point-of-sale provider mPOS are merging to form a new entity called NextPay, which will seek to raise US$30 million to expand domestically and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. NextPay's objective is to combine online and offline solutions into one with Vimo as the online channel and mPOS as the offline one.
With an eye on going public, Singapore's ride-hailing giant Grab needs to show profitability, or failing that, strong potential to be in the black soon. Serving as a high tech taxi or food delivery service no longer looks like it will be enough for investors. Instead, Grab wants to be a go-to digital bank. If Singapore regulators grant Grab a virtual-banking license, the company will be poised to test out its fintech hypothesis in its home market.
Indian fintech giant Paytm is reportedly in talks to acquire the Mumbai-based insurtech firm Coverfox for $100-$120 million in cash. If the acquisition is a success, it will be the largest by Paytm and mark the firm's arrival to India's insurtech segment with a bang, posing a direct challenge to market leader Policybazaar.
Australia's banks are in for quite a fight if Morgan Stanley's new report is accurate. The U.S. investment bank estimates in its newest Australia In Transition report that digital wallets could capture US$22 billion of revenue that in a less digitized world would have gone to the banks. Morgan Stanley's advice for the banks is blunt: Up your digital game before it's too late.
Korea's would-be challenger banks received a stern rebuke from the nation's Financial Supervisory Commission in May as the top financial regulator rejected applications for a virtual-banking license from Viva Republica-backed Toss Bank and Kiwoom Securities-backed Kiwoom Bank. The regulator found Toss's capital situation problematic and Kiwoom's plan unfeasible. Both Toss Bank and Kiwoom Bank could re-apply for internet-banking licenses later in the year.
Chinese peer-to-peer lending firms, reeling from the crackdown on P2P business at home, are starting to look for new business overseas. The fledgling India market is of great interest to several Chinese P2P companies, including 9F Group, CashBUS, and WeShare, according to reports in India's English-language media. The Chinese firms are attracted by India's huge size, steady economic growth and relative easy of market entry.
There must be room in Asia for one more super app. Ride-hailing giants Grab and Go-Jek are going that route, determined to show investors that they're more than glorified high-tech taxi services. The Philippines' Yuchengco Group, a family-owned conglomerate with businesses ranging from banking and insurance to travel, healthcare and funeral services, is now throwing its hat into the super app ring, with a very different approach. Yuchengco intends to replicate its offline services online within a single app: It sounds like reverse O2O, in the sense that services which were once offline are about to go online.
Paytm’s payments bank (PPB) has become India's first profitable business of its kind, posting a net profit of Rs19 crore ($2.7 million) in fiscal year 2018-19. PPB says that it accounts for nearly a third of all mobile banking transactions in India and processes over Rs3 lakh crore worth of digital transactions per year, second only to India's top lender State Bank of India. With over Rs 500 crore deposits in its savings account, PPB is the top payments bank in India in terms of deposits.