Asia Financial Industry Blog

India has long been a non-allied country. Amidst rising Sino-American tech competition, India's policy has not changed. It leans towards neither Washington nor Beijing. As India's digital payments sector surges, Chinese and U.S. tech investors shut out from each other's markets are instead competing intensely on the subcontinent. Consolidation will occur as India's digital payments market matures, as it did in the e-commerce, ride-sharing and food-delivery segments, analysts say.

The contrast between WeChat's dominance in mainland China and low profile elsewhere is striking. Of all the markets where WeChat could be a success, Taiwan - with its many cultural similarities to the Chinese mainland - is perhaps the most obvious. Mainland Chinese costume dramas, known for their high production value, are a staple of Taiwanese television. Among smartphone brands, after Apple and Samsung, Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei are among the most popular with Taiwanese consumers. In e-commerce, Taobao has carved out a strong niche for itself with young Taiwanese, especially women.

Fintech investors think big. Armed with heavy warchests, they seek out the noblest of disruptors - startups with a shot at redefining the rules of banking. Profitability is not the first order of business - or even the second one. As long as the idea is attractive and scaleable, losing money for a while is fine, perhaps even a given. It's a small price to pay if one of those neobanks ends up "democratizing banking."

To be sure, investors expect fintechs they back to eventually reach the black, but when is anyone's guess. It's a bit like trying to predict when the United States and China will reach a trade deal. With that in mind, we shouldn't be surprised that the founder of N26, Europe's most valuable challenger bank, recently said that profitability is not a core metric for his company. Yes, this is a privately-held (not state-owned) bank that seemingly shrugs at turning a profit. And it just so happens to have a valuation of $3.5 billion.

In China's peer-to-peer lending sector, there's no such thing as too big to fail. Chinese authorities have since last year been cracking down on widespread impropriety in the once ascendant segment. Even the preeminent platforms have not escaped unscathed, leaving many observers wondering if we have reached P2P's twilight in China.

Two years ago, Laos was removed from the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) money-laundering grey list after the landlocked Southeast Asia country showed some improvement in its AML policies. Since then, however, progress has been limited. Laos's casinos, property market and money exchange shops remain at high risk for money laundering. No money laundering case has made it to court. The onus is on Laos to better control financial impropriety ahead of a 2020 evaluation of its AML policies. Failure to do so could result in a return to the grey list.

Top fintechs all want a piece of the massive Indonesian market, Southeast Asia's largest economy and most populous country with 260 million people. Yet stringent licensing requirements hamper their ability to operate independently. Even giants like Alipay and WeChat Pay are struggling to make their services available to local users. The easiest solution is to find a local Indonesian partner. That's the path WhatsApp is taking as it moves into the Indonesian market, Reuters reported. WhatsApp will reportedly serve as a platform in Indonesia in partnership with local digital wallets.

Singapore-based ride-hailing app Grab intends to become Southeast Asia's premier digital bank, with Vietnam serving as a key growth market. Flush with cash from a recent fundraising round that netted a record $4.5 billion - the most ever for a startup in the region - Grab plans to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into one of Asean's fastest growing economies.

Alibaba's expected Hong Kong listing was supposed to be a grand homecoming. After all, the company's $21.8 billion 2014 NYSE listing - at the time the largest global IPO ever - disappointed some folks in Chinese officialdom who hoped China's biggest e-commerce firm would go public closer to home. Since the HKSE revised its rules last year to allow dual listings, there has been much speculation about Alibaba listing in Hong Kong.

In August, international media reported that Alibaba would suspend plans to list its shares in Hong Kong. The stock offering, which was expected to raise US$10-15 million had been scheduled for late August, according to a recent New York Times report. The deal could well have been the largest of the year and the top follow-on share sale in seven years. Alibaba nixed plans to list its shares in Hong Kong because of ongoing protests in the city and associated instability, the report said.

Not even the failure to obtain a virtual-banking license can dampen investor interest in South Korea's fintech unicorn Viva Republica and its digital banking platform Toss. In mid-August, Viva Republica announced it had raised $64 million from a group of investors led by Hong Kong-based Aspex Management. The latest capital injection brings Viva Repubica's total valuation to US$2.2 billion and follows an $80 million funding round in December co-led by Korean investors, Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital.

For Thailand, at first blush going cashless seems like a long shot. Cash accounts for 90% of overall transactions in the kingdom, despite 67% of Thailand's population using mobile payments in 2018. Thailand would need to maintain its rapid growth in digital payments over the last two years to make the transition from cash reliant to predominantly digital.

Myanmar is at risk of landing on the Financial Action Task Force's watchlist high-risk money-laundering destinations after a three-year reprieve, analysts say. In 2016, FATF removed Myanmar from the list, citing improvements in the country's efforts to combat financial crime. Since then, however, Myanamar has not taken adequate steps to implement safeguards against money laundering in both its banking system and non-financial institutions. If Myanmar appears on FATF's "grey list" again, investors could sour on the Southeast Asian nation's financial sector, which would harm fintech development as well as broader financial inclusion initiatives.

In July, Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) granted three virtual-banking licenses, surprising some observers who expected the regulator would only issue two. All three teams that applied for the licenses - led respectively by Japanese super app Line, Taiwanese telecoms firm Chunghwa Telecom and Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten - were well qualified, such that the FSC felt they all deserved to launch neobanks in Taiwan.

China's fintech giants are best known for dominating their home market. Outside of mainland China, they have limited market share. Merchants in countries popular with Chinese tourists increasingly accept Alipay or WeChat Pay, but the primary users are not locals but Chinese visitors who want to pay by smartphone as they do at home.

In Cambodia, however, Chinese fintechs have a chance to gain a strong foothold in the local payments market. To be sure, Cambodia's efforts to boost financial inclusion are a key reason for that. The Cambodian government sees digital banking as an efficient way to bring the kingdom's large unbanked population (estimated by the World Bank at 78% of Cambodians aged 15 and up) into the formal financial system. Further, commercial ties are burgeoning between Beijing and Phnom Penh. China is Cambodia's largest investor and source of tourists. That has opened up opportunities for Alipay and WeChat Pay to partner with local firms.

South Korea's financial regulators have taken a conservative approach to digital banking, issuing a limited number of licenses and outright rejecting a number of recent applicants. One of the only two firms to win a digital banking license thus far is Kakao Bank, a subsidiary of the Korean super app KakaoTalk. With its massive user base - which counts 94% of South Korea's population of 50 million as users - Kakao is poised to stake out a dominant position in the nascent South Korean digital banking market.

Despite the United Kingdom's Brexit travails, its digital banking sector remains red hot. Indeed, the UK is home to the most challenger bank unicorns of any country: OakNorth (valued at US$2.8 billion), Monzo (US$2.5 billion) and Revolut (US$1.7 billion). Further, if analysts' estimates are correct, Atom Bank (US$644 million) is closing in on the magic number of US$1 billion. Starling Bank, valued at $161 million, may be a ways off from unicorn status, but isn't doing too bad for itself all the same.

To be sure, these challenger banks all have strong potential, but they are not - at least for now - all equally profitable. And if profitability is a key metric by which to measure what these startups are actually worth, then we can argue that their valuation is inflated. In recent years, as fintech has steadily disrupted and even occasionally menaced traditional financial services, venture capital has been pouring into the segment. So goes the fintech bubble.

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.

Can Shanghai’s new NASDAQ-style exchange really become a NASDAQ and can Shanghai become New York?

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.

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