Asia Financial Industry Blog

July 23 2020

Paytm bets on insurance

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It is not easy to stand out in India's crowded payments segment. Users are spoiled for choice. There's Google Pay, Walmart-backed PhonePe, Alibaba-backed Paytm, or Amazon Pay, and perhaps one day WhatsApp Pay - if Indian regulators ever let it operate in the subcontinent. In theory, the first payment provider that can build a super app that bundles together all the services users want in one place will be the biggest winner. But that has proven elusive. It might be enough to build the best digital financial services platform - and forget about the rest. Paytm's entry into the insurance sector follows this line of thought.

London-headquartered TransferWise continues to buck pandemic-induced economic malaise. The money-transfer firm is one of the few fintech unicorns that was profitable before covid-19 hit. With cash saved for a rainy day, it has continued to expand strategically over the past six months. TransferWise has reportedly reached a valuation of US$5 billion, a 30% increase over its previous US$3.5 billion price tag, in a secondary share sale that raised roughly US$300 million. The U.S. hedge fund D1 Capital bought US$200 million in TransferWise shares as part of the deal, according to Sky News. Other key investors in TransferWise include Merian Global Investors, Andreessen Horowitz and Sir Richard Branson. 

Airwallex is among a handful of fintech unicorns that have closed huge funding rounds in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. In April, Airwallex raised US$160 million from investors as its valuation climbed to US$1.8 billion. Airwallex was established in Australia in 2015 and while now headquartered in Hong Kong, is still considered an Australian fintech. The company has sought to capitalize on demand for cheaper cross-border payments services among SMEs in its home market, where the major banks are notorious for charging high foreign-exchange fees. Airwallex says that its machine-learning technology enables fast, inexpensive and transparent global payments.

Japan has been trying to digitize financial services for years, given the high costs of maintaining a cash-based economy and the need for convenient payment options during the upcoming Olympics. The government's"Cashless Vision" initiative that seeks to increase non-cash transactions to 40% by 2025 began back in 2018, well before the covid-induced cashless drive that's sweeping across Asia. Going cashless to promote hygiene would probably seem superfluous in Japan, a country already known for its exacting hygiene standards.

AMTD is stepping up efforts to build a regional fintech ecosystem in Southeast Asia and plans to take a controlling stake in Singapore's FOMO Pay, a payments solution provider. The FOMO Pay deal follows AMTD's recent acquisitions of the leading insurtech PolicyPal, and CapBridge, Singapore’s first regulated securities exchange for digital assets and private companies.

Southeast Asia's most valuable tech startup is coming down to earth at last, despite maintaining a sky-high valuation of more than US$14 billion. Faced with the pandemic-induced downturn, Singapore-based Grab is scaling back its ambitions and remarkably, cutting costs. That involves eliminating some superfluous business units and trimming about 5% of its workforce. Grab's professed goal is to rejig its operations to focus on three core businesses: ride-hailing, food delivery and digital banking. Its unstated goal is to get its finances in order so that its bid for a Singapore digital full back license is successful.

The Hong Kong IPO market's hot streak shows no sign of slowing down, despite political turmoil and the pandemic-induced downturn. The reason is simple: Whatever changes come in Hong Kong, Chinese firms are prepared for them. After all, the firms listing on the HKEX are all based on the mainland. At the same time, China's economy is gradually recovering. Business activity is picking up.

China's payments market is so big that U.S. credit-card giants reckon it's better to arrive late to the party than never. Although China's fintech giants Ant Group and Tencent control about 90% of the US$27 trillion payments market, the remaining 10%, at US$2.7 trillion, is not exactly chump change. Among the U.S.'s big three card companies, Amex is the first to have its clearing license approved for China. That first mover's advantage, coupled with cooperation with numerous local banks and payments firms, could give Amex an edge over Visa and Mastercard.

Australia launched its open banking regime on July 1, ushering in an era of increased competition and customer choice. The regime allows a customer of any of Australia's Big Four banks - National Australia Bank, Commonwealth Bank, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and Westpac - to ask that their account and card data be sent to a third party accredited by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. In November, mortgages and personal loan data will be introduced, while smaller banks will join in 2021.

Cambodia's digital banking initiatives are increasingly on the money. The Kingdom has focused on fast-tracking digital banking to boost financial inclusion and develop the broader banking sector, which only serves a limited portion of the population. Just 22% of Cambodia's population of 16.2 million is banked. The good news is that fintech is bringing more Cambodians into the formal financial system. In 2019, active digital wallets in Cambodia jumped 64% to 5.22 million, according to a June report by the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC).

Taiwan's virtual banks were supposed to go live this summer but the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the launch date. The three neobanks, which include consortia led by Line Financial, Chunghwa Telecom and Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, will likely launch later in the year, according to Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC). The three neobanks have yet to start one-month operation simulation tests, a pilot period required by the FSC to ensure the banks are in shipshape.

China and the U.S. have both invested big in Indian fintech. Google Pay is one of the most popular digital wallets in the country, along with Walmart-backed PhonePe and Alibaba-backed Paytm. Facebook recently invested in India's Jio in a bid to build the subcontinent's first super app. There's just one problem: Indian regulators are concerned that foreign companies may dominate India's fintech market. WhatsApp Pay has yet to receive approval to launch in the subcontinent, two years after applying for a payments license. At the same time, New Delhi is cracking down on Chinese apps and enhancing scrutiny of Chinese investment amid rising geopolitical tensions with Beijing.

It was only a matter of time before an erstwhile high-flying fintech crashed amid the pandemic-induced downturn. After all, what goes up always comes down. What surprises us is that the insolvent party is not a unicorn with an inflated valuation in private markets, but a listed company founded in 1999: Germany's Wirecard. One would think that Wirecard would be able to manage the basics of banking and not cook the books. Unfortunately, creative accounting looks like the only explanation for how Wirecard "misplaced" US$2 billion that probably did not exist in the first place.

By now it's a familiar story: COVID-19 is driving cashless payments adoption in Southeast Asia. As one of the region's key economies and recipients of fintech investment, Vietnam is a market to watch. What's notable about Vietnam is that it's better poised for an economic recovery than almost any other country because of how well it has controlled the coronavirus pandemic. While the rest of the world was in recession, Vietnam's economy grew 0.36% in the second quarter, beating a 0.9% contraction forecast by economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

The Singapore digital banking race is accelerating. The Monetary Authority of Singapaore (MAS) has winnowed down the applicant field from 21 to 14. While the MAS did not say which contenders failed to make the cut, observers close to the matter say that the consortia headed by Grab/Singtel, Sea, Razer and MatchMove have all advanced to the next round. Those four applicants are all bidding for a coveted digital full bank (DFB) license, which permits holders to serve both retail and non-retail customers. The MAS plans to issue a maximum of two DFB licenses.

The UK's Starling Bank is that rare neobank that espouses an interest in profitability. Who would have guessed in the wake of the 2008-09 global financial crisis, when fintech was in its naissance, that the banks of the future wouldn't worry about making money? Starling though remains of a more traditional mindset than its contemporaries Revolut, Monzo and N26. That can be attributed in part to its founder Anne Boden, a banking veteran who previously worked at Lloyds, Standard Chartered, AON Corporation, UBS, ABN AMRO and RBS. In May, Starling closed a £40 million fundraising round led by current investors JTC and Merian Chrysalis Investment Company Limited.

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.

June 22 2020

Financial reform in China starts to pick up

Written by Kapronasia

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.

June 15 2020

Can South Korea's K bank stage a comeback?

Written by Kapronasia

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.

June 10 2020

Cambodia faces mounting money-laundering problems

Written by Kapronasia

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.

Ant Financial has invested $73.5 million in Wave Money (Digital Money Myanmar), a mobile financial services firm that aims to boost financial inclusion in one of Asia's poorest countries. Per-capita GDP is just $1326 in Myanmar, according to the World Bank, and 75% of its 54.5 million people lack a bank account. Ant's investment in Wave follows the Chinese fintech giant's announcement last November that it was planning to raise $1 billion for a fund to invest in Asean and India-based mobile internet startups. Ant is reportedly keen to back more fintechs in those markets.

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