As a medium-income country with a high rate of financial inclusion for the region – more than 80% of Thais have a bank account – Thailand is not the first country we would expect to briskly adopt a digital fiat currency. The purported benefits of a CBDC become nebulous without a pressing financial inclusion need. For that reason, we suspect that the Bank of Thailand has been in no rush to launch a digital baht. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interested in test driving one – hence the retail CBDC pilot that recently got underway.
Buy now, pay later (BNPL) has surged in Indonesia over the past few years, plugging a large lending gap and in many cases acting like a credit card in all but name. BNPL has grown so briskly in Indonesia that some analysts believe it will replace credit cards altogether.Perhaps not.
Australia-founded but Hong Kong-headquartered B2B payments sensation Airwallex has had a busy 2023 thus far. Not only did it just inject US$165 million into its Singapore entity, it also secured a China payments license in March and inked a partnership with American Express in January that will allow its clients in Australia, the UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong to accept Amex cards as a payment method option. It all seems to add up to an Asia-centric growth strategy that is less grandiose than what the Financial Times described in 2020 as the company wanting to “upend the global payments system.”
Who says digital banks cannot make money? We often do – because it tends to be true. But Kakao Bank is a notable exception to the rule, and all the more unusual because its success has come in one Asia’s best-banked countries. Kakao Bank is one of the few digital lenders that has reached profitability and stayed there, as it showed with its solid second-quarter earnings.
Japan’s cashless journey is unique in Asia. While most countries in the region that have accelerated cashless payments in recent years are seeking to simultaneously boost financial inclusion, Japan is one of Asia’s best banked countries, with more than 95% of its adult population having a bank account. For Japan, going cashless is not about increasing participation in the formal financial system, but rather about reducing cash-related costs, as well as bringing the country’s technological prowess to financial services and increasing competition in the financial sector.
In the mid-2010s, the fintech business of Tencent grew exponentially, with WeChat Pay and its offshoots allowing the company to become a viable competitor to Alipay in China. Yet even as Tencent captured close to half of China’s payments market, and established a digital bank, WeBank, that could rival Ant Group’s MYbank, it never displayed the same kind of appetite for global expansion as Jack Ma’s company.
Singaporean sovereign wealth fund GIC's annualized 20-year real rate of return - its main performance gauge - for the year ended March 2023 was 4.6% after accounting for inflation, the highest since 2015 and up from 4.2% a year earlier. GIC has a diversified portfolio of which certain Chinese investments are a big part, including Alibaba and Ant Group. The diversity of the portfolio likely helped GIC insulate its performance from the 2022 market correction.
Paytm seems to have found the secret sauce at last. After years of rolling out seemingly unrelated digital financial services, the Indian fintech giant is instead focusing on lending and seeing its revenue rise accordingly. In the first quarter of the 2024 fiscal year, Paytm’s revenue rose 39% year-on-year to 23.42 billion Indian rupees (US$286 million). The company reported an operating profit for a third straight quarter, despite higher employee expenses and no government incentives, while its net loss narrowed to 3.57 billion rupees.
The strong recovery that we and many others had envisioned in Hong Kong’s IPO market has yet to materialize. Listings in Hong Kong have raised just $2.6 billion this year, down 47% from the same period last year and far below 2021 levels, according to Dealogic. With that in mind, we are intrigued to see that Hong Kong’s financial regulators appear to be looking beyond the usual up-and-coming Chinese tech companies and cooperating with both local governments in China and the Indonesia Stock Exchange (IDX).
When it comes to fintech in South Asia, India has long dominated, whether in terms of overall investment, unicorns, or the broader ecosystem. While India will no doubt remain the biggest player in the region for the foreseeable future, its neighbors have an increasing number of market opportunities.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos on July 18 signed a bill creating the Philippines’ first sovereign wealth fund, a move aimed at accelerating infrastructure and economic growth in one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia. The Philippines follows Singapore – whose two sovereign wealth funds are both success stories – as well as Indonesia (so far, so good) and Malaysia (failure) with observers divided over whether Marcos’ Maharlika Investment fund will deliver on its promises or be less successful.
It isn’t the most obvious recipe for success: digital banking and groceries. But it seems the Standard Chartered-FairPrice Group offshoot Trust Bank is doing something right. By late May, just eight months after its launch, the Singaporean digibank had accrued US$739.5 million in deposits and was – by its own estimates – on track to break even in 2025.
The Indonesia Stock Exchange has been one of Asia’s top performers this year and globally among the top five exchanges by the amount of capital raised. The IDX has even outperformed the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX) thus far this year, raising US$2.2 billion as of June, according to Refinitiv data. There is reason to believe that the boom could continue for some time in Southeast Asia’s largest equity market.
With the surge in popularity of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, it has become more important than ever to ensure that related companies and projects are as “green” as they purport to be. PwC estimates that ESG-related assets under management (AuM) will reach US$33.9 trillion by 2026, from US$18.4 trillion in 2021. With a 12.9% annual growth rate, ESG assets are on track to make up 21.5% of global AuM by 2026.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending has become a big industry in Indonesia in recent years, with an estimated 250 trillion rupiah (US$17 billion) loans disbursed in 2022, up from about 155 trillion rupiah (US$10.2 billion) in 2021. The first six months of 2023 saw a 28% growth in the P2P lending market, according to market research firm YouGov.
Naver’s Line has been keen to leverage the strength of its messaging app and e-wallet in select markets to expand into digibanking. Yet Line Bank Japan, which was supposed to be a tie-up between Line and Mizuho Bank, quietly folded in March, 4.5 years after the venture’s first preparatory company was established. Chalk up its failure to regulatory woes. However, Line has set up three other digibanks in the Asia-Pacific region that rely on a similar strategy of teaming up with incumbents.
In recent years, Singapore’s financial center star has risen so high that the city-state is now commonly referred to as the Switzerland of Asia. It’s an apt comparison, especially considering Singapore’s booming wealth management sector. Yet when it comes to capital markets, Singapore Exchange (SGX) is one of Asia’s weakest performers – and not even close to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX). SGX has struggled to attract big-ticket listings despite a push to get tech giants to list closer to home, regulatory changes to attract SPACs and tie-ups with other stock exchanges.
One has to give Ant Group credit: Despite the bruising tech crackdown it has endured at home, it has not given up on its vision of creating a regional payments ecosystem. In fact, Ant arguably had the idea to link up the disparate markets of Southeast Asia via a proprietary digital payments network even before different countries in the region began to set up their own bilateral rails using QR codes.
GCash is by several measures the most successful e-wallet in the Philippines. There is no question it has a massive user base – 81 million active users and 2.5 million merchants and social sellers as of May. What’s more, according to the company’s leadership, it became EBITDA profitable three years ahead of schedule, though it has declined to be more specific than that. While the global economic environment is not optimal for an IPO, GCash itself is doing well enough that it can probably afford to go ahead with the listing before year-end.
One should always take what crypto diehards say with a few shakers of salt, but especially when it comes to liberalization of China’s digital asset policies. A popular narrative right now is that because Hong Kong is reimagining itself as a crypto hub, that this experimentation will pave the way for mainland China to do the same. While a relaxation of Beijing’s crypto controls cannot be ruled out, it remains unlikely because of the associated systemic financial risk, concerns about money laundering and the central government’s preference for strong capital controls. The selection of Pan Gongsheng as the top Communist Party official at the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) adds weight to the argument that crypto liberalization remains elusive in the mainland.
While it may not be a sure thing, the Kakao Bank-SCBX tie-up looks promising. Following the Bank of Thailand’s (BOT) announcement earlier this year that it would allow digital banks by 2025 – no rush, it seems – some of the biggest financial groups in the kingdom have expressed their interest in setting up a digital lender. It just so happens that Thailand’s decision to greenlight digibanks comes as South Korea’s Kakao Bank is preparing for international expansion.
Indonesia is the most important digital financial services market in Southeast Asia, given its overall size, unbanked population of 181 million, and island geography. With 6,000 populated islands, Indonesia is almost uniquely suited for branchless banking.
It is thus no surprise that the region's most prominent platform companies, all in search of a shorter road to profitability after burning cash in the days of low interest rates and easy venture funding, are betting big on the Indonesian market. Singapore's Grab and Sea Group, as well as Indonesia's own GoTo and Bukalapak, are all vying for market share in Indonesia's burgeoning digibanking market.
Data from Redseer suggests that Indonesia's "total addressable market for financial technology services" will reach US$70.1 billion in 2025, up from US$17.8 billion in 2020.
While the Singaporean firms have deeper pockets and arguably a larger talent pool they can deploy, GoTo and Bukalapak have a certain homefield advantage. They understand the market better, and their resources are not spread as thin because they do not have large operations outside of Indonesia.
Buying the way to success
Unlike some other regulators in Asia, Indonesia's Financial Services Authority (the OJK) has made it relatively easy for foreign firms to move into digital banking. It has actively encouraged the purchase of incumbent lenders that can be rejigged as digital banks. The OJK sees that model as a win-win, allowing a local bank that might otherwise have been uncompetitive to improve the quality of its services, while big tech companies that make the investments do not need to apply for a digital banking license: They can use the license of the bank they buy.
This strategy is working out well for Sea Group, which bought Indonesia's Bank BKE in early 2021 and revamped it as SeaBank Indonesia. It was easy for Sea to meet the 3 trillion rupiah capitalization requirement for digital banks.
It did not take long for the undisclosed investment to pay off, especially given the synergies between Shopee's e-commerce ecosystem and digital banking. SeaBank Indonesia recorded a net profit of 269.2 billion rupiah ($18 million) in FY 2022, compared with a loss of 313.4 billion rupiah ($21 million) in FY 2021. Not a huge profit by financial industry standards, but certainly a step in the right direction. Furthermore, SeaBank's loans disbursed climbed to 15.9 trillion rupiah ($1.1 billion) in FY 2022 from 6.1 trillion rupiah ($409.2 million) the year before.
Thus far, Sea is the only major platform company to acquire a local bank outright. GoTo has a 22% stake in the local bank Bank Jago through a US$160 million investment Gojek made in late 2020, while the Grab-Singtel consortium has a minority stake in Indonesia's PT Bank Fama.
Laser focus on Indonesia
Local platform company Bukalapak has also leveraged its e-commerce ecosystem, but in a different way than Sea Group. In fact, such is the company's experience with merchants that it is now moving into the offline segment with its Mitra business to help the owners of small shops known as warung digitalize their operations.
According to venture capital firm Flourish Venture, traditional warung represents 70% of sales in Indonesia's US$257 billion grocery market. Given that the roadside kiosk operators are facing increasingly tough competition from modern, larger retailers, Bukalapak reckons that better digital connectivity can help them compete more effectively against the big players.
Thriving amid competition
As platform companies battle it out for dominance in Indonesia's digibanking market, the country's unique landscape and unbanked population present a vast opportunity for growth. With Singaporean giants like Grab and Sea Group, along with local players GoTo and Bukalapak, vying for market share, the race is on to capture a piece of Indonesia's booming digital financial services sector.
As these platform companies continue to streamline their operations and focus on profitability, Indonesia's digibanking market holds immense potential, and all four companies have a chance to thrive if they adapt to the evolving landscape and embrace a profitability-first approach. The pie is certainly big enough.
It is hard to win with cryptocurrency regulation. Its absence exasperates the worst elements of the digital assets ecosystem, but when regulation finally arrives, it is often roundly criticized. Such is the case with South Korea’s first standalone digital asset bill, which focuses on investor protection.
The great irony of digital banking in East Asia is that it most often refers to large incumbent banks, conglomerates, Big Tech or a combination of the three launching online-only lenders. Not the Philippines’ Tonik Bank though. It’s a genuine startup that began as a rural bank and morphed into a digital one. Tonik’s financials for 2022 recently appeared in several media reports, and by the looks of things, the three-year-old digibank is doing reasonably well in terms of customer acquisition, but its losses are widening.
Japan’s financial sector has been on a shopping spree in Indonesia, with an eye on digital finance opportunities. Though Japan has gradually been increasing financial sector digitization, the pace is slow compared to Indonesia and financial inclusion needs are limited given the country’s advanced stage of development and high per-capita GDP. Japan’s megabanks have been the most active buyers of assets in Indonesia, but other financial firms are also starting to look into opportunities in segments like banking and payments.
In recent years, the biggest credit story in India has been buy now, pay later, sometimes abbreviated as BNPL. Tremendous demand for credit has driven the BNPL boom in the subcontinent, but tighter regulation and slower growth are both now inevitable. As BNPL slows in India, there is an opportunity for the overlooked – but better regulated and steadily growing – credit card segment to build market share. To be sure, credit cards remain more of a premium product in India now than BNPL and the market is significantly smaller than for installment payments. Still, it is not small given India’s overall market size.
The month of June has been a busy one for digital assets in Singapore. Several more big names have been approved for a Major Payments Institution (MPI) license, while the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) published a new white paper outlining its vision for purpose-bound money. What is becoming clear about Singapore’s approach to digital assets is that the city-state wants to capture the promising aspect of these new forms of money while ring-fencing its economy and citizenry from the unsavory elements of cryptocurrency.
Patience is a virtue, and good things come to those who wait? Or so it seems in the case of Paytm, India’s most prominent fintech, once best known for looking like yet another questionable bet by Masayoshi Son, but now reminding us he knows how to pick winners after all. Paytm stumbled out of the gates of its November 2021 IPO, but since then has gradually improved its core metrics and has had a pretty good 2023. The company’s stock is up 67% this year; it has a booming lending business and may be profitable sooner than expected.
With a population of 169 million, of whom 40% to 50% lack a bank account, Bangladesh is a prime candidate for digital banks. Unlike the advanced economies of East Asia, Bangladesh can genuinely benefit from online banks that can rapidly bring more people into the formal financial system. With that in mind, the Bangladeshi central bank in June announced that it is ready to approve a framework for digital banks.
The Bank of China's recent issuance of $28 million in digital structured notes on the Ethereum blockchain is a significant development that has been met with both applause and skepticism. This move, the first of its kind by a Chinese financial institution, signals a potential shift in China's stance towards public blockchain-based digital assets. However, the question remains: Is China truly ready to embrace this new frontier?
Digital transformation in Japan’s financial sector has been a gradual process, with the earliest pure-play online lenders dating back to the early 2000s, but limited change occurring until recently. Among East Asia’s developed economies, Japan is unique in that it has an unusual number of barriers to digitization of financial services: limited financial inclusion needs, a deep affinity for cash, a comprehensive and mature banking system with branches almost anywhere customers would need them, and the world’s most elderly population. That said, the pandemic spurred Japan to speed up financial digitization, and the trend is proving to be enduring.
When will Ant Group’s transformation be complete? Once China’s and probably the world’s most prominent fintech firm, the company has been caught up in political and regulatory headwinds since November 2020. Each time the light at the end of the tunnel has seemingly been in view, the expected revival of its IPO – the only definitive signal that would signal the company were out of the woods – has failed to materialize. Recent moves by Ant Group suggest that it still has some work to do before its transition to a technology company that works for the national interest is complete. That seems to be what Beijing expects of Ant.
Ever since lifting its Covid controls, Hong Kong has been on a mission to burnish its financial center credentials that were damaged by its long closure to the world during the pandemic as well as the political turmoil that preceded it. One key part of the city’s strategy has been to embrace digital assets even as other jurisdictions like Singapore tread a more cautious path. While much media attention has focused on Hong Kong’s dance with crypto, the former British crown colony also seems determined to roll out a central bank digital currency (CBDC).