Asia Financial Industry Blog

The honeymoon period is over for Southeast Asia’s platform companies, even the venerable Sea Group. While boasting a strong ecosystem Sea is still consistently losing money in two of its three divisions. Being bullish on Sea means believing that the profitable gaming arm Garena can carry Shopee and Sea Money indefinitely. Investors appear to be having their doubts, especially as Garena’s growth has slowed recently. Sea’s share price has fallen 63% in the past six months and 43% over the past year and is now trading at about US$127.

When it rains it pours, at least for super apps. Throughout Asia, platform companies are struggling as their capabilities often cannot match overly lofty investor expectations. The problem is especially acute for India’s Paytm, whose record-breaking IPO – it is India’s largest to date – nevertheless turned out to be a sign of worse things to come. Paytm’s stock fell 27% on its first day of trading and has fallen about 65% since the November IPO to 543.5 Indian rupees.

Home to about 70 fintech startups, Nepal is a nascent market for digital finance. That said, the pace of adoption in the Himalayan nation of 30 million is picking up amid the Covid-19 pandemic and with about 55% of the population unbanked, there is a need for fintech solutions that can boost financial inclusion. In the past few months, there have been several key developments that could speed up the digitization of Nepal’s financial sector.

South Korea’s people have long been more enthusiastic about crypto than the country’s regulators and politicians. By one estimate, in 2021 one in three South Koreans either invested in crypto or was paid in digital assets. A study by the Korean government’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) found that South Korea’s cryptocurrency market value was estimated at 55 trillion won (US$45.6 billion) as of the end of last year, that 15.2 million Koreans have accounts and 5.6 million registered users of crypto actually trade. Yet heading into Korea’s recent presidential election, the country was tightening oversight of cryptocurrencies in a manner detrimental to market growth.

Amid a general digital finance boom in Indonesia, the nascent retail investing segment is growing fast. A proliferation of investment apps, usually with low minimum investments, is allowing a much greater proportion of the population to invest. Historically, the wealthy have dominated the country’s stock market. Indonesia’s newbie investors are not only interested in equities though; they are also increasingly keen on crypto. Many of Indonesia’ new retail investors are young people, with about 70% between the ages of 17 and 30, according to Indonesia’s central securities depository.

Could Malaysia become a crypto hub in Asia? A recent CoinDesk article made that case, pointing out that some of the necessary ingredients are already there, such as a common law system and institutional use of English. Further, Malaysia's crypto ownership rate of 19.9% is above the global average of 15.5%, according to Finder’s latest Cryptocurrency Adoption Index.

The performance of Australian neobanks so far has been a bit underwhelming. Of the best known four (not to be confused with the big four), only Judo Bank has been an unequivocal success. Xinja collapsed about a year after receiving its banking license; 86 400 threw in the towel when it received an offer from National Australia Bank (NAB) it could not refuse, and Volt is pivoting to banking as a service. Given that it is targeting a similar SME customer demographic to Judo, the ascendant Aussie fintech Zeller could be more successful than the digital lenders focusing on the retail market.

While Kakao’s fundamentals remain strong, the Korean super app has been struggling of late amid a perfect storm of regulatory travails, investor disappointment and awkward leadership changes. In the past six months, Kakao Bank and Kakao Pay’s shares have both fallen about 29%.

What goes up must come down, right? Usually, yes, but with fintech startups the "up" can sometimes go on for so long that one wonders if the "down" is inevitable. This holds especially true for the buy now, pay later (BNPL) segment, which is now ascendant in India. The scale of BNPL’s growth in the subcontinent is something to behold. Indian research firm Redseer predicts that the market will reach US$45 billion to US$50 billion by 2026, an exponential increase from US$3 billion to US$3.5 billion now.

Pakistan is the largest nascent fintech market in Asia, with an unbanked population of 100 million. About 70% of the population lacks a bank account. In absolute numbers, there are more unbanked people in both India and Indonesia, but those markets have much more developed fintech ecosystems than Pakistan. The investors and firms that are able to get in on the ground floor in Pakistan and establish strong business models will be able to reap substantial rewards.

In mid-2021, Revolut became the UK’s most valuable fintech with a valuation of US$33 billion. Though the company lost US$280 million in the 2020 fiscal year, it has continued to spend heavily on expansion efforts in a bid to build a “global financial super app.” Revolut has long had its eye on the Asia-Pacific region and recently moved to strengthen its position in both the India and Australia markets.

Banking has been critical to Revolut’s ascendancy in Europe. However, the company’s origins do not lie in deposit taking and lending. Indeed, Revolut began as a multi-currency travel card offering favorable exchange rates. In India, Revolut is returning to its roots with a focus on cross-border payments, as seen in the company’s recent strategic acquisition of Indian international money transfer firm Arvog Forex for an undisclosed sum. This deal – which follows Revolut’s Indian arm raising US$45.5 million from its UK parent – will allow Revolut to launch a cross-border remittances service for Indian customers in the second half of the year.

The Philippine central bank BSP decided in October 2021 to cap the number of digital bank licenses at six for the next three years. It awarded licenses to Overseas Filipino Bank, Tonik Digital Bank, UNObank, Union Digital Bank, GOtyme and Maya Bank. The BSP wants to see how the arrival of digibanks affects the country’s financial industry before it issues any new licenses. Thus far, the digital lenders appear to be stimulating a huge amount of market activity.

Long before the pandemic disrupted the world, Southeast Asia’s preeminent platform companies began integrating financial services into their apps for practical reasons. Their cash-burning core services, like e-commerce, ride hailing and food delivery, were failing to make money. Fintech was seen as the answer. Struggling airline AirAsia, now rebranded as Capital A, sees similar promise in digital financial services, but it still needs travel to recover for its digital services ecosystem to thrive.

Ant Group-backed Akulaku is one of the more promising fintech startups to emerge from Indonesia in recent years. In mid-February, Akulaku secured a US$100 million strategic investment from Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank, which followed a US$125 million investment in 2021 co-led by Hong Kong’s Silverhorn Group. Akulaku is now valued at US$1.5 billion to US$2 billion.

With CBDC hype subsiding – at least in most advanced economies – Japan’s plans for a digital yen are coming into focus and unsurprisingly, Tokyo is in no rush to launch a digital fiat currency even if it sees some upside to the idea in the long term. Japan has no compelling policy reasons to quickly roll out a digital yen, regardless of what China is doing. And in fact, Beijing spent about six years getting the digital RMB ready and it remains in the pilot stage.

Lax anti-money laundering (AML) controls resulted in Cambodia being placed on FATF’s grey list once again in February 2019. Since then, Cambodia has been trying to improve its AML capabilities but running into one obstacle after another. In Nov. 2021, the United States Department of State cautioned businesses about the risks of doing business in the kingdom in a new report, citing risks for the financial, real estate, casino, and infrastructure sectors.

Indonesia will probably be the first country in Southeast Asia where the reality of digital banking lives up to the hype. The vast archipelago nation has everything online banks need to thrive: a huge market, amenable regulators, sufficient connectivity and eager deep-pocketed investors. Even the complex geography of the country, which is made up of 17,508 islands (6000 of which are inhabited), favors branchless banking.

For an aspiring super app, PayPal’s performance over the past six months has been underwhelming. There is nothing “super” about its 59% decline in its share price to about US$110.50 during that period, nor the revelation that it had removed 4.5 million fraudulent user accounts. Though they were just a fraction of the company’s 425 million overall accounts, they represented a significant potential fraud risk.

Remember when more crypto was traded in China than any other country in the world? Though it was less than five years ago, it seems like a lifetime ago. In 2021, China accelerated a long-running crackdown on decentralized virtual currencies, banning just about everything crypto-related but possession. While some diehard crypto enthusiasts in China may carry on, Beijing has made crypto trading more trouble than it is worth for most Chinese. With crypto out of the way, Beijing can now concentrate on developing its own blockchain ecosystem.

Thailand is late to Asia’s digital banking party, which formally began back in 2019 when Hong Kong and Singapore approved them – though South Korea had digital banks as early as 2017. Since Asia’s two main financial centers embraced digital banks, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have followed suit. Until now, middle-income and well-banked (85% of the population has a bank account) Thailand has been a hold-out. A recent announcement by the kingdom’s central bank suggests a change of direction.

Vietnam is one of the last major markets in the Asean region where fintech remains at a relatively nascent stage. The payments segment accounts for the lion’s share of fintech investment, a whopping 93% as of late 2021, according to Statista. There have been several key investments in that segment of late, as well one in retail investing.

Kakao seems to have a case of the super-app blues, notably in its two fintech units. Shares of Kakao Bank and Kakao Pay have fallen 39% and 32% since their respective August and November debuts. Between December and late January, the Kakao group lost roughly US$25 billion in market value. 

Next to Indonesia, the Philippines is perhaps the most exciting emerging market for fintech investment in Southeast Asia right now. Like Indonesia, the Philippines is an island archipelago nation with a large unbanked population – 47% of the adult population – and geography that makes physical bank branches impractical in many cases. The Covid-19 pandemic has meanwhile accelerated digitization of financial services in the Philippines, a trend that looks to be irreversible. All these factors have converged to facilitate rising investment in the country’s fintech sector, with several key big-ticket deals already closed just a month into 2022.

Why ban crypto when you can discourage its use by taxing it heavily? That seems to be at least part of the rationale behind India’s plan to forego a ban on decentralized virtual currencies but tax income from digital assets at a flat 30% rate with no deductions or exemptions. At the same time, India plans to go ahead with a digital rupee by early 2023.

Taiwan’s first two digital banks launched last year, Rakuten Bank in January and Line Bank in April. A third digital lender, Chunghwa Telecom-backed Next Bank, should have launched much earlier but has been hamstrung by repeated regulatory travails. It will go live in in the first quarter of 2022 at the earliest.

As one of the largest Asian economies to greenlight digital banks, Indonesia is attracting a lot of interest from investors. Digital lenders in Indonesia are not competing for mostly secondary accounts as they are in markets like Hong Kong and Singapore. Instead, they are trying to get in on the ground floor. About 66% of Indonesia’s 275 million people are unbanked.

The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated the threat digital financial crime poses to Singapore. Since the pandemic began, the city-state has experienced a surge in online loan, e-commerce and phishing scams. Since 2016, scammers have made off with S$965 million, according to a recent investigation by The Straits Times. A record high of S$268.4 billion was taken in 2020 as the pandemic forced most banking and other transactions online. The threat did not recede in 2021 as seen with the OCBC phishing incident.

India’s buy now, pay later (BNPL) market had a cracking 2021 and is charging full speed ahead into 2022. According to RazorPay’s The Covid Era of Rising Fintech report, the India BNPL market grew more than 637% in 2021, even better than 2020’s 569% growth. For its part, India BNPL firm ZestMoney found in a recent survey that BNPL is the top payment option for Indian consumers across all age groups – though most users of the service in subcontinent are ages 23-26. ZestMoney said that its BNPL transactions rose 300% annually in 2021.

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