The United States is currently focused on fighting the coronavirus outbreak, which has surged in the country since early March. Containment efforts are occupying much of the government's time, and with good reason. The massive health and economic threat posed by the virus means that Washington has little time for less pressing matters. Yet underlying tensions between the U.S. and China remain, with the financial sector the next front of an emerging cold war.
In early March, U.S. lawmakers sought to curb the access of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to American banks. The White House had mulled doing so in December but decided against it amidst a flurry of activity to reach a phase-one trade deal with China. The NETWORKS Act introduced earlier this month would effectively ban 5G producers such as Huawei from accessing the U.S. financial system if they are found to be violating sanctions or engaging in industrial or economic espionage.
North Korea's growing nuclear program has long been a point of contention between the U.S. and China. Beijing prefers to handle its mercurial neighbor with kid gloves while Washington favors a tougher approach, namely economic sanctions. To evade sanctions in the digital age, Pyongyang has upped its hacking game. Both banks and cryptocurrency exchanges are victims. Digital currency offers North Korea a way to raise funds and do business outside the US dollar led global financial system. North Korea stole more than US$2 billion from both traditional financial institutions and crypto exchanges - including South Korea's Bitthumb - the United Nations said in an Aug. 2019 report.
Well before COVID-19 broke out, Hong Kong's future as a global financial center was in question. The protests that broke out last year have raised concerns about the city's ability to maintain its unique competitive strengths. Further erosion of political stability and the rule of law will augur ill prospects for the former British colony. In the short run, it is true that none of Hong Kong's neighbors can challenge its position as the region's preeminent financial center. But Hong Kong cannot assume that will never change.
The novel coronavirus outbreak has crimped business activity across China, bringing the world's second largest economy to a virtual standstill. Yet amidst those unprecedented conditions, China's fintech giants have been busy developing digital solutions to mitigate COVID-19's impact. Some of the solutions are aimed squarely at the consumer economy, while others support government efforts to track people's health status.
Peer-to-peer lending is one of the fintech segments that most struggles to gain credibility. Next to cryptocurrency, it may be the most susceptible to scams. But it is not only borrowers who are at risk. Lenders can easily get burned when borrowers default. Since many borrowers on P2P lending platforms are those unable to get a loan elsewhere, their credit is typically not optimal.
P2P lending began growing quickly in South Korea about four years ago, offering attractive returns to investors amidst very low interest rates. Some P2P businesses began venturing into risky investments such as real estate project funds, non-performing loans and mortgages. South Korea had 239 P2P lenders in December 2019, up from just 27 four years earlier. Their outstanding loan balance totaled 2.38 trillion won.
Cambodian and Thai regulators recently announced the launch of an interoperable payment QR code for use between Cambodia and Thailand. Cambodian tourists who visit Thailand may now use their mobile banking app to pay in Cambodian riel when shopping at stores that display a Thai QR Payment sign, while the same functionality will be extended to Thai tourists in Cambodia by Q3 this year.
A collaboration between the Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) and five Cambodian commercial banks, the interoperable QR code was developed upon domestic electronic transfer system PromptPay which runs on Vocalink infrastructure. ACLEDA Bank PCL, Cambodia Commercial Bank (CCB) and the Foreign Trade Bank of Cambodia (FTB) are sponsoring banks of the collaboration, which mean that other banks would be required to work with the three in order to provide the service.
The India digital payments market makes for a fascinating contrast to China's. Unlike China, India has allowed foreign tech giants to compete on a mostly level playing field against its homegrown firms. In fact, Chinese tech giants are strategic investors in some of those Indian fintechs. Competition in the surging Indian payments market - Credit Suisse reckons it will grow fivefold to US$1 trillion by 2023 - is fierce. Google Pay is the market leader followed by Walmart-backed PhonePe according to research firm Razorpay. India's own Softbank-backed Paytm has fallen behind. AmazonPay is also vying for market share.
Entering into this fray is WhatsApp Pay, the digital wallet of the global messaging giant. WhatsApp Pay is aiming to do what in India what WeChat did in China: Segue from chatting and photo sharing into digital banking on the back of a popular messaging app. The difference is that WhatsApp Pay has a lot more competition. The only major digital wallet WeChat faced was Alipay. Interestingly though, WhatsApp has about as many users in India - 400 million as WeChat had when it expanded into digital banking in 2014. Today, WeChat has more than 1 billion users, mostly in China.
Fintech investment declined 3.7% in 2019 to US$53.3 billion as deals in China dropped off dramatically, according to a report published by Accenture in February. The slow in China deal flow can be attributed in part to the protracted U.S.-China trade war. Investor enthusiasm for the China market has cooled amidst an uncertain business environment. China's economy grew 6.1% in 2019, the slowest pace in three decades. At the same time, it would have been hard for China to equal its 2018 deal tally, buoyed by Ant Financial's mammoth US$14 billion funding round.
It is important to note that some of the most high-profile fintechs which raised millions of dollars last year have yet to break even, never mind post a profit: Revolut, N26, the fintech units of Grab and Gojek, to name a few. Yet, that did not stop investors from continuing to support their costly expansion. Accenture's data show that the 92% drop in China's fintech investment was the main reason for the modest decline in global fintech investment last year.
Ant Financial's international expansion runs on two separate tracks. The first is a concerted push into emerging markets, especially in South Asia. In these countries, Ant is laying the groundwork to become a primary provider of digital financial services to the local market. In many cases, incumbents and digital infrastructure are both weak. Ant sees opportunities to leverage both its banking and technology acumen in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
It's a very different story in Western Europe. There, Ant is making gradual inroads. The Chinese fintech giant says it wants to serve the local market, but its products are designed for Chinese consumers and businesses. European incumbents, meanwhile, are often entrenched. There's no easy way around that. Growing in Western Europe through acquisitions in local companies makes more sense than going it alone. With that in mind, Ant recently took a minority stake in Swedish payments platform Klarna, the most valuable fintech startup in Europe alongside the UK's Revolut. Klarna is currently valued at US$5.5 billion and says that it has 80 million customers globally.
While virtual banks and mobile wallets may be some things that may come to mind when one thinks about the possibilities of fintech expansion in Asia Pacific, the region is also home to one of the largest untapped markets in the world that few seem to be paying attention to- Islamic finance.
To name a few, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Pakistan are all Muslim-majority countries that are located in the Asia Pacific region, where some 986 million believers make up the majority of the fastest-growing religious group in the world. An estimated $3.2 trillion in halal lifestyle spending will be expensed by 2024, according to the 2019 State of the Global Islamic Economy report from DinarStandard.
Singaporean ride-hailing giant Grab is set upon becoming a top digital bank in Asia. Over the past year, the company has raised billions from investors in a bid to fund the transformation from app-based neo-taxi service into neobank. It has inked numerous deals with financial services incumbents and applied for one of Singapore's coveted digital full banking (DFB) licenses. If Grab's application is successful, it will be allowed to conduct both retail banking and corporate lending in Southeast Asia's financial center.
While Grab has troves of user data and digital acumen, it lacks financial industry expertise. Addressing this shortfall is crucial for the company to gain the trust of customers as a financial services provider. The segue from ride hailing to banking is not as seamless as Grab sometimes suggests. Partnering with a large commercial bank could help Grab bridge that gap, and increase its chances of securing the DFB. Japan's Mitsubishi UJF Financial Group (MUFG), which led Grab's recent US$856 million funding round, is just that type of partner.
Back in 2016, when the European Union (EU) released its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), lawmakers from the rest of the world welcomed it as a pioneering model to study and cite. So, when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in 2019 that her organisation had ambitions to take GDPR-like leadership in regulating Artificial Intelligence (AI), technologists and governance professionals across the globe took note. Ms. von der Leyen stated in a speech before the European Parliament last November, "With the General Data Protection Regulation we set the pattern for the world. We have to do the same with artificial intelligence."
Roughly 100 days later, in February 2020, the EU published the strategy paper, "White Paper on Artificial Intelligence - A European approach to excellence and trust." Disappointingly, an initial reading of the document suggests that regulators in Asia and the rest of the world should not expect GDPR-like leadership from Europe on the responsible use of AI. The authors of the EU white paper were certainly limited by the tight, 100-day deadline that was imposed upon them. Nevertheless, from an AI governance perspective, their report and its proposals seem timid, rather than bold. There is little that compares it to the ambitions that the GDPR showed for protecting data privacy. Consequently, the direction of AI governance may continue to be driven by countries like China, whose 2017 Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (新一代人工智能发展规划) highlighted their focus on quietly influencing international standards.
Roughly a year ago, Hong Kong looked set to take a leading position in Asia's nascent digital banking space. In late March 2019, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) awarded three digital banking licenses. It later issued five additional licenses. The eight neobanks, which include consortia led by Chinese tech giants Ant Financial, Tencent and Xiaomi, were reportedly set to begin operations in the second half of 2019.
Then came the Hong Kong protests. The political turmoil that erupted in June 2019 has shaken confidence in Hong Kong's once unassailable position as the region's top global financial center. Amidst the economic fallout, Hong Kong has slipped into recession for the first time since the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Given unenviable economic conditions, all but one of Hong Kong's digital banks have postponed their launch.
The novel coronavirus outbreak is crimping global business as people avoid travel and even going out in public. The sharp contraction in business activity augurs ill prospects for the financial industry. Banks are not optimistic about their first quarter results. If the virus isn't contained soon, the second quarter could be even worse.
For the nascent virtual banking segment, Covid-19 is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, e-commerce demand remains strong thus far. Consumers still need to buy essential everyday items. If they are hesitant about visiting a physical store, the best option is to make the purchases online. In the short term, that means a rise in online transactions and in many cases the use of digital wallets.
Singapore has 21 applicants for just five digital banking licenses. There are going to be many more losers than winners in this race. Speculation about the likely winners is reaching a feverish pitch ahead of the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) expected announcement of the winners. The decision is expected by June.
MAS has made clear that it has little interest in large-scale disruption of the financial-services sector. The regulator certainly wants to boost competition and the quality of digital-banking services in the city-state, but in a steady, incremental manner. Evolution is necessary. Revolution is not. With that in mind, the MAS designed the application process to ensure that only firms with ample capitalization and strong potential for profitability would meet the licensing criterion.
Malaysia is set to introduce digital banking following the passage of a new regulatory framework by its central bank in December. The central bank said it would issue up to five licenses to qualified applicants to set up digital banks. The licenses will allow the holders to conduct either conventional or Islamic banking business in Malaysia. Capital requirements are not low, with an absolute minimum of RM 100 million (US$23.7 million) necessary during a three to five year foundational phase and thereafter RM 300 million.
The Trump administration has not shown much enthusiasm for a sovereign digital currency so far. With China's advances in the area, however, Washington's stance could be set to change. In early February, a member of the United States Federal Reserve Bank board of governors said the Fed is researching and experimenting with distributed ledger technologies and their virtual-currency applications. Among the applications being explored is a central bank digital currency (CBDC).
Lael Brainard, who chairs multiple Fed committees, made the remarks at a speech during an event on payments held at Stanford University. Brainard noted that 80% of central banks globally are researching CBDCs. However, she stopped well short of endorsing a full-throated campaign to create a digital dollar, devoting considerable attention to the challenges and risks posed by digital fiat currencies.
China's fintech giants have been quietly expanding in emerging markets that are participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to deepen Beijing's economic ties with the world. South Asia has become a geographic area of focus for Ant Financial's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Pay. Aside from India, major South Asian nations have few domestic digital payments options, and limited foreign fintech investment. They offer Alipay and WeChat Pay a chance to gain a first mover's advantage.
That's why WeChat Pay has been determined to enter Nepal. Of course, Chinese tourists do visit Nepal, which is known for its resplendent scenery, but in the long run that market is not as crucial as local consumers and small businesses. In early February, Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) approved WeChat Pay to operate in the South Asian country.
Some analysts are adamant that Singapore needs digital banks to boost financial inclusion. That's an interesting argument, given that 98% of Singaporeans over 25 have a bank account, according to research by Allianz Global Wealth. By Allianz's estimates, globally only Israel has a higher rate of financial inclusion than the Lion City.
In Singapore's case, this type of hard data is more instructive than a nebulous concept such as being "underbanked." A report published in October 2019 by Bain & Co., Google and Temaek Holdings found that 4 in 10 Singaporeans were underbanked, implying they don't have access to all the essential financial services they need. The findings might be more convincing if the same report had not also found that 40% of Thais and 45% of Malaysians were underbanked. The latter two countries are middle income, with per-capita GDP levels far below Singapore's.
China has demonstrated a willingness to innovate in the financial services technology sector. For example, the Chinese government has announced accelerated plans for a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), the People's Bank of China (PBOC) has filed scores of CBDC patents and fintech initiatives like Baidu’s Xuperchain network have been introduced to great fanfare. What's more, the PBOC's Fintech Development Plan (2019 – 2021) expresses support for technological innovation, including the use of public cloud.
However, the Chinese government is also traditionally cautious in regard to security and control. Thus, financial services companies in China who are contemplating the migration of critical business applications to the cloud would be well-advised to plan carefully. To that end, Chinese regulators have reportedly engaged in private conversations with information security representatives from several foreign banks, advising them that critical hosting engagements in the cloud will need to be handled exclusively by specialised "Financial Community Cloud" providers who have been certified by the government.
The Vietnam fintech market was Southeast Asia's hottest in 2019 after Singapore, an impressive feat given that the Lion City is a hub for the entire region. From Jan. to Sept. 2019, Vietnam accounted for 36% of Southeast Asia's venture-capital fintech investment compared to 51% for Singapore, according to a December report from the United Overseas Bank (UOB), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Singapore Fintech Association (SFA). Vietnam was far ahead of other Asean economies, including Indonesia (12%) as well as the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia (2% each).
Vietnam's Banking Strategy Institute reckons that the nation's fintech market will reach US$9 billion in value this year, which will make it the region's fourth largest. Fast growth in the fintech sector and the potential for the industry to boost financial inclusion probably explain why Hanoi nixed a plan to cap foreign ownership in payment service intermediaries at 49%, which was proposed by the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV) in November.
India fintech unicorn Paytm is shifting its focus to merchants in a bid to better compete with rivals Google Pay and Walmart-backed PhonePe. Paytm lags those two firms in its share of the transactions on India's state-backed real-time UPI payments system. As of October, UPI handled more than 50% of India's digital transactions, according to research firm Razorpay.
Credit Suisse reckons that India’s payments market could reach $1 trillion by 2023. Four or five major firms are likely to vie in India's payments market after consolidation, analysts say. A duopoly like Ant Financial-WeChat Pay in China is unlikely in the India market.
Australian neobanks are tapping strong demand for digital banking services to swiftly build up their deposit bases. Among the virtual banks reporting expeditious deposit growth are Xinja, Up!, Judo, 86 400 and Volt Bank. Xinja's growth has been especially impressive: It reports amassing $115 million in deposits in just 20 days. That would put Xinja on track to reach its goal of $120 million in deposits for the year by the end of February.
Reform is coming to China's US$27 trillion payments market belatedly. Very belatedly. U.S. credit-card giants have been trying to crack the market for years, to no avail. The market should have been open to them by 2006, per China's WTO commitments. But Beijing has hesitated to open its financial industry to foreign investment. It is finally signaling greater openness amidst the toughest business conditions China has faced in decades, perhaps since the beginning of economic reforms in 1978.
In mid-February, Mastercard announced it had received approval from the People's Bank of China (PBOC) to formally establish a bank-card clearing business in China. The green light for Mastercard comes three weeks after Beijing and Washington signed a phase-one trade deal to ease tensions in their strained economic relationship. American Express has also recently been granted approval to set up a bank-card clearing business in China. Both Mastercard and Amex are working with local Chinese partners in joint ventures.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) announced on 28 January of the enforcement of a new Payment Services Act, the first comprehensive legislation of its kind that regulates distinct activities in payment services ranging from digital payments to the trading of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin and Ether.
The Payment Services Act comes at a well-coordinated time before the MAS awards a total of five digital bank licenses to a select few of its 21 reported applicants. While that may be the case, some have begun to speculate on the effects and ramifications the Act will have on fintechs that are hoping to or have already begun operations in Singapore.
Tencent is stepping up its fintech investments outside of China, where it and Alibaba's fintech arm Ant Financial effectively have a market duopoly. One approach for Tencent is direct expansion - the launch of WeChat Pay in international markets. That's a good idea in any country frequented by Chinese tourists or business travelers.
But direct expansion only goes so far, especially in developed economies. Tencent doesn't expect consumers in Europe or the United States will opt for WeChat Pay instead of Apple Pay, Google Pay, or apps created by local banks and fintechs. Instead, the Shenzhen-based company is taking strategic stakes in ascendant startups, including French mobile payment app Lydia and challenger bank Qonto. These investments will give Tencent a chance to grow its fintech business in Europe through local rising stars.
Singapore has never been as large a financial center as Hong Kong. In every major traditional area of finance, Hong Kong has an edge. That is not the case in fintech, where Singapore's Asean location is a boon. The world's preeminent tech giants and venture capitalists have all descended on Southeast Asia, where the underbanked are legion, regulators are keen to boost financial inclusion, and consumers are digitally adroit. Singapore is ideally positioned to take advantage of this opportunity.
Hong Kong entered 2020 in recession and wracked by political unrest. It remains Asia's paramount financial center for now, but its future looks uncertain. Holding onto incumbents is less of a problem than persuading tomorrow's rising stars to base themselves in the city.
India was one of the world's hottest fintech markets in 2019 with related venture-capital investment in the first half of the year reaching $286 million. Investors are especially keen on the payments segment, which an Assocham-PWC India study predicts will more than double to $135.2 billion in 2023 from $64.8 billion in 2019.
P2P lending grew steadily in Indonesia last year on the back of robust demand from both SMEs and the consumer market.From January to May, the Indonesia P2P sector grew 44% to reach IDR 41 trillion (US$2.92 billion), according to Indonesia's Financial Services Authority (OJK).
Japan is one of the few major economies in Asia with a strong preference for cash. About 80% of transactions in Japan are cash, compared to 40% in China and 11% in South Korea.
Australia has been among the most proactive APAC countries in its approach to open banking, dovetailing with a broader focus on boosting consumer choice and protecting consumers. While not exactly unhappy with incumbents, Australian consumers would like better native digital options. Regulators, meanwhile, want to see improved compliance. The findings of the Financial Services Royal Commission exposed widespread wrongdoing in the Australian banking sector. More recently, several of the country's largest banks were heavily fined for lax anti-money laundering policies.
The fintech arms of Chinese internet giants Alibaba and Tencent have fought each other to a standstill in their home market. Together, Ant Financial (through its e-wallet Alipay) and WeChat Pay each hold about 90% of China's US$25 trillion mobile payments market, each with roughly an equal share. The duopoly looks stable for now.
Much like its anti-corruption campaign, China's crypto crackdown is relentless. Beijing views decentralized digital currency as a conduit for money laundering and capital flight. In contrast, Beijing sees crypto's underlying blockchain technology as useful. Blockchain can help China boost its tech prowess, improve supply-chain integrity and surmount bottlenecks across many industries, particularly financial services.