China’s launch of the digital yuan has prompted a scramble in Northeast Asia among central banks to assess the merits of CBDCs. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are all at different stages of CBDC testing that they likely never would have begun if it were not for Beijing’s determination to develop a digital fiat currency. That begs an important question: Does the rest of Northeast Asia need CBDCs? After all, the respective initiatives of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are inherently reactive, in contrast to Beijing’s proactive approach.
Japan’s largest bank is increasingly looking to digital finance in Southeast Asia as an avenue for growth, as its home market is mature, slow to digitally transform and constrained to some degree by an ageing population. In contrast, Southeast Asia’s largest countries still have ample low-hanging fruit, especially Indonesia, a key area of focus for MUFG.
What crypto bear market? North Korea stole a record amount of digital assets in 2022 despite the industry facing unprecedented difficulties. Perhaps the Hermit Kingdom knows something others do not and is betting all that purloined crypto will appreciate handsomely in the years to come. Or maybe it’s just easier for the country’s formidable cybercriminals to pilfer digital assets than other types of money given that the crypto industry continues to operate in the shadows. Whatever the reason, Pyongyang made off with a quite haul last year.
One of our favorite ironies about digital banking in Asia Pacific is that incumbent banks have a growing role in the segment, from Hong Kong to Singapore to Taiwan to Australia. It wasn’t supposed to be this way – at least not to our knowledge. What ever happened to good old-fashioned scrappy startup-driven disruption? With that in mind, we turn our attention to two digital lenders that can technically be classified as startups, but are backed by Standard Chartered, a huge incumbent lender operating in 59 countries that earns most of its revenue in Asia.
Singapore has long been seen as the Switzerland of Asia, a pro-business, largely neutral state with a huge financial services sector catering to an international clientele. Like Switzerland, Singapore is an integral part of the surrounding region yet also has a strong independent streak and never leans too far to one geopolitical side.
Hong Kong has been busy preparing to roll out the red carpet for digital assets, but there are other emerging areas of financial services that are less volatile and trouble prone, and well, more sustainable. To that end, Hong Kong way want to focus more attention on green/sustainable finance given the reality of climate change and the significant opportunities the segment is expected to provide. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that combined ESG assets could surge to US$53 trillion by 2025, with the Asia-Pacific region driving “the next leg of growth.”
The whispers about China potentially reconsidering its ban on cryptocurrency are growing. In fact, some credible (not crypto bros) people are starting to openly moot the possibility, albeit in the most cautious way possible. If asked a year or even six months ago, we would have said that it was highly unlikely given the concerns the central government has about the use of decentralized digital currencies to evade capital controls and how they may foment systemic financial risk. Now we would say that there is a real debate occurring, but that the ban will not be reversed unless the Chinese authorities see compelling economic benefits.
With the world’s third-largest unbanked population, Pakistan is one of the last major nascent markets for fintech. In the past few years, fintech investment has picked up in the country thanks to rising investor interest, supportive government policies and a need for effective digital financial services solutions. Though the deal pipeline started to taper off towards the end of 2022, the long-term outlook remains bright.
Like its rival Alibaba, Tencent has developed a large portfolio of overseas fintech investments. Some of these are strategic bets on rising Big Tech companies with fintech arms, like Voyager Innovations in the Philippines and Sea Group in Singapore, which Tencent believes will eventually be dominant players. Other investments are more focused on facilitating access to the mainland China market for fintechs that have a niche there, such as Australia-founded but Hong Kong-headquartered Airwallex.
South Korea’s Viva Republica is defying the tech slump that has frozen funding for many fintech unicorns, both real and aspiring. In late December, it finalized a US$405 million Series G funding and it says it is now valued at 9.1 trillion won ($7 billion), up from 8.5 trillion won in June 2021, when it raised $410 million in pre-Series G funding at a $7.4 billion (8.5 trillion won) valuation.
Walmart-backed PhonePe, one of the biggest players in India’s payments market, is now one of the subcontinent’s most valuable private fintech firms with a valuation of US$12 billion following a mammoth US$350 million capital injection. PhonePe’s valuation more than doubled from US$5.5 billion at the end of its previous funding round in December 2020.
We have published a few commentaries over the past year noting how central bank digital currency (CBDC) adoption in Southeast Asia is pretty slow. Cambodia is an exception, but its digital fiat currency is not exactly a CBDC in the traditional sense – an important distinction to make. Bakong is probably best described as a blockchain-powered retail payments system managed by the Cambodian central bank that allows interoperability among the different players in the country’s payments landscape.
The Chinese government views cryptocurrency as a serious systemic financial risk and has taken strong measures to minimize its usage in the world’s second largest economy. Though China retains a thriving underground crypto ecosystem, Beijing’s different bans on digital assets ensure that the average Chinese citizen will not be exposed to them.That said, Beijing has not expressed any opposition to blockchain/DLT technology; on the contrary, the Chinese government believes that it can use blockchain for a wide variety of applications, from trade finance to improving supply chain safety.
Australia’s neobank experiment has largely gone awry, with three of the four original online lenders defunct or now part of an incumbent bank. To be sure, startups fail or get bought all the time – more often than they thrive as independent companies – but we dare say that was not the expectation of the neobanks’ founders, nor Australian regulators who sought to introduce greater competition into the financial services sector dominated by four incumbent juggernauts. The one neobank that remains from that first cohort is Judo, which has carved out a niche lending to SMEs, listed successfully on the ASX and seems poised to reach profitability before long.
Japan is a well-established laggard when it comes to cashless payments in East Asia. South Korea’s cashless payments ratio is an astonishing 94%; China’s is only a slightly less astonishing 83%; Singapore’s is 60% and Japan’s is much lower at 32.5%, according to data compiled by the Payments Japan Association and the Japan Consumer Credit Association. That said, Japan is still on target to reach its modest target of 40% cashless payments by 2025, and could gradually increase the ratio in the following years.
Taiwan’s government has historically had an amicable relationship with the cryptocurrency industry because it functions for the most part outside of the Taiwanese banking system and has not caused them many problems. Further, Taiwan’s conservative retail investors have generally been less eager than most of their counterparts in East Asia to jump into crypto investing, which has made digital assets a niche market on the island. However, the latest crypto bear market, and especially the collapse of FTX, have highlighted why the hands-off approach may need to be adjusted.
After a bleak first half of 2022, Hong Kong’s IPO market regained momentum in the second half of the year. Refinitiv data show that 75 listings raised US$12.69 billion.To be sure, it was a weaker performance than 2021, as the number of deals and total proceeds fell 25% and 70% respectively through early December. Yet ironically, Hong Kong’s IPO market ended up No. 3 globally in terms of funds raised in 2022 after Shanghai and Shenzhen thanks to the rebound in deals in the second half of the year.
Crypto bear market be darned: Indonesia plans to set up a cryptocurrency exchange later this year ahead of a shift of regulatory powers over digital assets to the Financial Services Authority from the Commodity Futures Trading Regulatory Agency, known as Bappebti. The move is part of a broader financial reform push.
Better late than never? That was our first reaction to the news that at long last, Thailand has reached a decision on digital banks: It will allow them by 2025, and start accepting applications later this year. By 2024, Thailand will issue three digital banking licenses. And of course, online lenders will have to satisfy certain requirements, which we expect to be stringent and effectively eliminate any scrappy startups from even bothering to throw their hats in the ring.
India launched its long-awaited CBDC pilot in early November – wholesale – and early December – retail – with much fanfare. Nine banks are participating in the wholesale pilot and four in the retail pilot, which is focusing on the cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Bhubaneswar.
Two years and 2.5 months after its IPO was shelved at the 11th hour, Ant Group appears to be nearly out of the woods. Ant has jumped through countless hoops for regulators over the past few years, from creating a dedicated consumer finance unit to raising its capitalization to agreeing to share consumer data with the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) to having Jack Ma give up control of the company – more on that later. So it is no surprise that with the Chinese economy faltering, battered by zero Covid and then the abrupt shift to living with the virus, that regulators are ready to put China’s tech crackdown in the rearview mirror.
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When it comes to Singapore’s digital banks, is hindsight 20/20? Probably so. The hype surrounding them never quite corresponded to reality, and in many regards accurately mirrored the broader tech bubble that pushed up the valuations of so many cash-burning startups into the stratosphere. Like their counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore’s digital banks will need to spend a lot of time and money to effectively penetrate what is already a mature, well-served market.
Buy now, pay later (BNPL) is not new to Taiwan. Incumbent banks have offered the service for years through credit cards on certain e-commerce platforms. Instead of paying for a purchase in one go, the buyer chooses 3, 6, 9 or 12 months of interest-free installment payments. Because the banks already are authorized lenders, there is no regulatory problem. Yet in recent years, dedicated BNPL platforms have entered the Taiwan market and begun offering similar services – though they do not call them “lending” or “credit.” They will not be able to operate in this regulatory gray area much longer.
Is Europe the new New York for Chinese companies keen to raise capital overseas? Not exactly, as there is no exact replacement for the capital markets opportunities that the Nasdaq and NYSE once afforded Chinese firms. But given persistent tensions in the U.S.-China relationship, Chinese companies are opting for less liquid capital markets and less prestigious overseas listings – but without any of the geopolitical drama that has come to characterize their presence on U.S. exchanges. Switzerland’s SIX, meanwhile, is fast becoming the exchange of choice for Chinese companies wanting to raise capital outside of Greater China.
2022 was a tough year for Japan’s SoftBank and its CEO Masayoshi Son. Neither the company nor Son is weathering the global tech slump and general rising investor skepticism towards growth-first, cash-burning startups especially well. In the third quarter, SoftBank’s Vision Fund arm lost a whopping US$7.2 billion, which only looks acceptable when compared with its record US$23 billion loss in the April-June period.
Call it a comeback? That seems to be the message of the Hong Kong authorities as they work to restore the city’s reputation as Asia’s premier financial hub. While some things will never be the same in the erstwhile British crown colony, it does retain significant strengths as a financial bridge to the mainland, and the Greater Bay Area (GBA) in particular. But when it comes to serving as a hub for cryptocurrency, the jury is still out.
2022 was a year of mixed fortunes for China in many respects – but not in the case of its IPO market. Despite the trials and tribulations that the zero-Covid policy brought to China, listings on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges hit a new high. Nearly 400 firms are estimated to have gone public on China’s exchanges in 2022, raising a record RMB 560 billion (US$80.4 billion), an increase of 3% over 2021, according to PwC.
Japan’s largest bank is betting big on fintech. In recent months, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG) has invested in several ascendant Asian fintech firms, including Indonesia’s Akulaku (also backed by Ant Group) and the consumer finance businesses of Netherlands-based Home Credit NV in Indonesia and the Philippines. MUFG may also acquire Japanese buy now, pay later (BNPL) firm Kanmu for roughly 20 billion yen (US$150.56 million).
In the days before China’s tech crackdown humbled the country’s largest platform companies, Ant Group seemed intent on building its own cross-border payments ecosystem in Southeast Asia. The idea, though never explicitly stated, was to build a regional payments rail that could replicate at least some of the success of Alipay’s dominant domestic system.
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It was just a matter of time before Southeast Asia’s largest economy unveiled its roadmap for a central bank digital currency (CBDC) and indeed, Indonesia’s central bank recently published a white paper about its plans for a digital rupiah. Whether Indonesia actually needs a CBDC is a separate matter, and its motivations for launching a digital fiat currency are only now starting to become clear.
U.S. payments giant Stripe has had its eye on the Asia-Pacific region for a long time, both mature markets like Japan and Australia, and emerging economies in Southeast Asia. It sees enormous potential in the region, despite the intense competition in the payments segments there. However, the global tech slump may force the company to slow the speed of its expansion as it works to cut costs. Earlier this year, Stripe’s US$95 billion valuation reportedly fell 28% after an internal recalculation. Then came the layoffs.
Like its rival Alibaba, Tencent has developed a large portfolio of overseas fintech investments. Many of these are strategic bets on rising Big Fintech players, like Voyager Innovations in the Philippines, Sea Group in Singapore and Airwallex in Hong Kong via Australia. However, until recently, there has been nothing that clearly links these different companies in Tencent’s fintech ecosystem. The Shenzhen-based company intends to change that with the launch of Tenpay Global and Tenpay Global Remittances.