Financial Industry Blog - Kapronasia

As recently as October 2023, Indonesia’s peer-to-peer (P2P) lending company Investree was riding high. It was then that the company, which focuses on the B2B segment, announced it had raised $231 million in a Series D funding round led by Qatar’s JTA International Holding which also included participation from Japan’s SBI Holdings. The Series D round suggested high investor confidence in Investree, which had previously raised $23.5 million in a March 2020 Series C round led by MUFG Innovation Partners and Bank Rakyat Indonesia Ventures. Yet the events of recent weeks suggest all is not well at Investree – and that the viability of the company’s business model is shaky.

Despite the Philippines’ large unbanked population and geography that favors branchless banking, its digital lenders have yet to significantly disrupt the market. In fact, as it stands now, their market share appears to be a drop in the bucket.

India’s most prominent fintech unicorn has steadily improved its financials in recent years in a push to reach profitability sooner rather than later. In the October to December period, Paytm posted an operating profit – which the company defines as core profit before cost of employee stock options – for the fifth consecutive quarter. The figure was 2.19 billion rupees, a significant improvement over 310 million rupees during the same period a year earlier. Consolidated revenue, meanwhile, increased 38% to 28.5 billion rupees, with its payments business contributing 61% to the total. Despite these solid numbers, the company could face some headwinds in the months ahead.

Although China cracked down hard on cryptocurrency beginning in late 2017, it did not succeed in eradicating demand for digital assets. And unsurprisingly, given the size of the country, it remains unofficially a big crypto market. Data compiled by research firm Chainalysis show that the Chinese crypto market recorded an estimated US$86.4 billion in raw transaction volume between July 2022 and June 2023. Further, the proportion of large retail transactions of US$10,000-US$1 million is nearly twice the global average of 3.6%. While crypto bros would have us believe that a full-throated revival of crypto in the world’s second largest economy is just around the corner, the reality is more nuanced.

South Korea’s K Bank has been thinking about going public for a while now. Its business has grown briskly since it restarted normal operations in mid-2021. Market conditions, however, have been suboptimal and the digital lender undoubtedly has observed how its rival Kakao Bank has yet to live up to lofty investor expectations. Though Kakao’s stock has recovered somewhat over the past year, rising about 4.5%, it is still down almost 58% from its market debut in November 2021. K Bank wants to avoid such a scenario.

We recently wrote about how Google Pay has defied the odds in India, a crucial fintech market where both American tech and credit card giants have struggled to carve out a niche. The Google Pay app continues to hold a roughly 35% market share of the paramount homegrown payments rail United Payments Interface (UPI) in India, while WhatsApp Pay and Amazon Pay each have less than 1% and PayPal is absent altogether.

Southeast Asia’s most exciting digital banking market at the moment also happens to be the region’s largest economy. No other country in the region offers the same breadth of digital banking opportunities as Indonesia. Much of the market development to date has involved strategic tie-ups between the country’s powerful conglomerates and Asian platform companies. However, incumbent banks unto themselves are increasingly emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the burgeoning digital banking market.

Incumbent banks more often than not take a cautious if not skeptical approach to cryptocurrency, so it is surprising to see that Thailand’s Kasikornbank appears to be going all in on digital assets. After all, it was not so long ago that its competitor Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) thought better of acquiring the Thai crypto exchange Bitkub.

While regulatory uncertainty continues to hang over its domestic operations, Ant Group is not letting that get in the way of its ambitious global expansion of which the Alipay+ platform is a key part. The number of partnerships/tie-ups between Alipay+ and various entities is growing briskly and increasingly spans the whole of Asia, from Sri Lanka to Korea to the United Arab Emirates as well as Europe the United States.

China made clear its stance on cryptocurrency with a crackdown that began in late 2017. The Chinese authorities then and now view decentralized digital currencies as more harmful than useful. From Beijing’s perspective, cryptocurrencies empower non-state actors in the financial system in a way that that they believe aggravates systemic financial risk.

One of the most promising segments of digital financial services in India is remittances. Unlike traditional banking, it is not completely dominated by incumbents, and the massive Indian diaspora population ensures that demand will be robust for years to come. 2023 was another big year for Indian remittances – though not as big as 2022.

Malaysia has been one of the least hurried Asian countries when it comes to digital banking, owing to its middle-income status and high percentage of banked people – above 90%. The Malaysian central bank first mooted the idea of digital banks in December 2020 but nothing happened with regards to commencing operations for almost three years. That is finally changing, first with the low-key launch of Grab, Singtel and Kuok Group’s GXBank in the fall of 2023 and now with the respective soft launches of Boost Bank – a joint venture between fintech company Boost and RHB Banking Group – and AEON Bank, which is a subsidiary of AEON Financial Service in mid-January.

In late December, the Chinese venture capital fund Greater Bay Area (GBA) Capital announced that it would set up a US$10 billion Web3 fund – the largest such initiative we know of in China. Unsurprisingly, this fund was established with considerations beyond actual market demand. Because GBA Capital, which is owned by the China Europe International Financial Group, has a state background, its thinking behind this fund is strategic. Beijing is trying to develop the Greater Bay Area as a financial center for China’s Pearl River Delta region. Becoming a domestic Web3 hub might be one way to do that.

In recent years, the fintech landscape in Asia has developed rapidly, with a diverse array of startups and established companies transforming how financial services are delivered and consumed. As we typically do, Kapronasia will be publishing our Asia fintech top-10 trends report for 2024 in the next few weeks, but in the meantime,  it’s worthwhile previewing some of the key trends, challenges, and opportunities that will shape the Asian fintech industry in 2024.

2023 was a year of incremental progress for the digital yuan and we expect more of the same in 2024. Gradually, hype about China’s central bank digital currency (CBDC) is easing, though it still flares up from time to time. Case in point: that report published by Bloomberg last summer that depicted the mBridge cross-border CBDC initiative as a potential challenger to the US dollar in the global financial system. As much as such narratives may generate clicks, they fail to ring true.

Singapore-based multicurrency wallet YouTrip announced on January 3 that its users can now hold up to S$20,000 (US$15,025) in their e-wallets and have an annual spending limit of S$100,000, up from S$5,000 and S$30,000, respectively. The new maximum limits are the same as those recently adjusted upward by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

Cryptocurrency’s future looks uncertain in many respects, but that is not deterring Hong Kong from doubling down on its digital assets bet. The erstwhile British crown colony seems determined to transform itself into Asia Pacific’s premier cryptocurrency hub at the soonest and recently launched both stablecoin regulation consultation and signaled its intention to allow retail access to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that invest directly into cryptocurrencies.

Big Tech considers India an important market when it comes to search, social media, messaging and e-commerce. Fintech, however, is another story.

Mitsubishi UJF Financial Group (MUFG), Japan’s largest bank, is increasingly investing in Indonesia's burgeoning financial services sector as its home market is mature, slow to digitally transform and constrained to some degree by an aging population. In contrast, Southeast Asia’s largest economy offers low-hanging fruit in many different segments of financial services.

Internationalization of China’s currency has moved more slowly than many analysts had expected. The renminbi remains far behind not only the dollar but also the euro as a reserve currency, and several percentage points behind the both Japanese yen and pound sterling in that area. However, when it comes to payments, China’s currency has done better of late. From January 2023 to October 2023, its share of cross-border payments jumped from 1.9% to 3.6%, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In what was not a banner year for capital markets, India’s IPO market performed surprisingly well, exceeding expectations and the performance of numerous competitors. We had been expecting Hong Kong to stage a strong comeback in 2023 – which did not happen – while mainland China also did not perform as all as we expected, despite contributing about 40% of global proceeds last year. Overall, in 2023 732 companies went public in Asia Pacific raising US$69.4 billion, an annual decrease of 18% and 44% respectively. India, however, recorded 57 deals that raised roughly US$6 billion. While proceeds were down from 2022’s US$7.2 billion, the number of IPOs was up by more than 25% and among the most of any single market in the world.

One of the biggest pieces of news at November’s Singapore FinTech Festival was the city-state’s decision to award in-license approvals to stablecoin issuers Paxos Digital Singapore Pte and StraitsX. That move came with a cautious endorsement of the less-volatile form of cryptocurrency that is typically pegged to a fiat currency at 1 to 1 and backed by reserves such as cash and bonds.

We have learned by now not to get our hopes up for digital banks to dramatically alter the market landscape in most countries – but there are still exceptions to the rule. With one of the world’s largest unbanked populations – 60 million adults – and an overall population of 169 million not especially well served by incumbent banks, Bangladesh appears to be an exception. For that reason, the Bangladeshi central bank’s recent decision to allow eight digital lenders will not be overkill.

It has become apparent in 2023 that South Korea intends to regulate cryptocurrencies, an important development given the country’s economic and geopolitical significance. South Korean has long had an active crypto retail investing community, which is one of Asia’s largest, so to a certain extent implementing regulations simply represents regulators acquiescing to reality. The devil, of course, will be in the details, and it is those details that remain hazy. After all, what do regulators mean when they say they will aim to strike a balance between protecting investors and fostering innovation?

There is a disconnect between Singapore’s ascendancy and the performance of the Singapore Exchange (SGX). Indeed, the city-state has in recent years solidified its status as Asia’s premier fintech hub as well as the most important financial center in Southeast Asia. In some aspects of financial services, Singapore has surpassed its long-time competitor Hong Kong. Yet definitely not in capital markets. Despite a subpar IPO year for the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX), it has still been far more active than SGX.

At the recent Singapore Fintech Festival, the city-state’s announcement that it would pursue a wholesale central bank digital currency (CBDC) pilot next year was big news, and justifiably so. As Southeast Asia’s key financial center, Singapore’s monetary policy decisions usually have regional implications.

There is something about digital banks in South Korea. Just like most incumbent banks – and unlike many of their digital peers – they tend to be profitable. Toss Bank, the digital banking unit of fintech unicorn Viva Republica, is no exception to the rule. In the July to September period, it recorded its first profitable quarter, which means that all three of the country’s digital lenders, which also include Kakao Bank and K Bank, are now moneymakers.

The Japanese financial services group SBI Holdings has become an aggressive fintech investor, taking stakes in many different digital financial services startups that it views as promising. Earlier this year, it led a US$28 million Series A round in German fintech Pliant, while its digital banking unit SBI Sumishin Net Bank went public in March, becoming the first Japanese online lender to do so – despite the less-than-optimal market conditions. In recent months, SBI has made a series of new investments that show its growing interest in digital assets.

After a long moment in the sun, buy now, pay later (BNPL) has lost some of its luster. That’s not to say it will fade away. Far from it. In fact, many deep-pocketed fintechs and prominent incumbents in advanced economies have introduced the service because consumers like interest-free installment payments. However, pure-play BNPL firms that are essentially one-trick, loss-making ponies are in varying degrees of trouble. In the case of India’s ZestMoney, once a high flyer in the subcontinent’s erstwhile red-hot BNPL segment, the trouble seems to be terminal – and the company will reportedly throw in the towel at the end of this month.

More than four years after the financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore announced they would allow digital banks, the online lenders have failed to disrupt those respective markets. They have opened plenty of customer accounts, but their deposit bases remain modest, as does their addressable market.

Elsewhere in the region, digital banks have larger potential markets, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines. Still, stiff competition and a lack of product differentiation mean that it is often necessary to subsidize customers to secure temporary loyalty. Some of these digibanks are also constrained by the focus of their parent companies on other businesses unrelated to financial services, like ride-hailing and food delivery.

The only countries in Asia where digital banks have found the secret sauce are China and South Korea, which can be attributed to both the innovative business models of online lenders and the unique market characteristics of these two countries.

China as a digital banking pioneer

In 2023, China’s fintech market is both mature and constrained by a lingering crackdown on Big Tech. But rewind to roughly a decade earlier and it was a hotbed of digital financial innovation. China’s preeminent platform companies Alibaba and Tencent, having found success in e-commerce and gaming, respectively, pushed aggressively into digital financial services with implicit support from regulators that supported the financial inclusion benefits and the efficiency gains from the widespread digitization of payments. They capitalized on weak digital offerings from incumbents, incumbents who often chose to work with the tech giants in consumer lending – when regulators still permitted it, of course.

In 2019, the last year before the pandemic and China’s tech crackdown (both of which have weighed on earnings), Tencent-backed WeBank posted a net profit of $565 million and Alibaba-backed MYbank recorded net income of $180 million. Both online lenders first became profitable in 2016, about a year after being founded.

Amid China’s tech crackdown and the country’s economic travails, MYbank has pivoted to supporting social welfare and rural entrepreneurship – and has also joined the digital yuan pilot program. WeBank has also joined the digital RMB initiative.

While it remains to be seen if either of China’s digital banks can ascend to their previous zenith, their leveraging of the respective Alibaba and Tencent ecosystems, surging smartphone adoption and strong customer demand for digital financial products has proven to be a winning formula.

First mover’s advantage

Besides China, South Korea is the only other Asian country where digital banks have reached profitability and seem able to stay there. Kakao Bank is by far the country’s most profitable online lender, benefiting from its super-app approach with the ubiquitous Kakao Talk messaging app at its core. Like WeChat in China, Kakao Talk is a way of life in Korea. When Kakao Bank launched in 2017, it had a ready potential market of millions of Kakao Talk users – who are now estimated at around 47.6 million in South Korea – a majority of the population of 52 million.

Kakao Bank can be thought of as the first mover among Korea digibanks, and it only needed two years to reach profitability. It exploited the lack of competition to grow briskly while simultaneously eschewing the incautious – and expensive – international expansion we have seen from Western digibanks like Revolut.

In the first three quarters of 2023, Kakao achieved a record-high net profit of 279.3 billion won ($214.12 million) thanks to increased lending to borrowers attracted by its low-interest rates.

In the first nine months of the year, Kakao’s deposit balance also increased from 34.6 trillion won to 45.7 trillion won, a growth of 11.1 trillion won, or 32.1%.

Crypto fever

K Bank is another profitable digital bank in South Korea, though its business model seems to be less sustainable than Kakao’s given its reliance on cryptocurrency. In fact, K Bank had to suspend operations a few years ago due to capitalization problems and when it re-emerged it inked a deal with leading Korean crypto exchange Upbit in which the exchange’s customers use K Bank for deposits. Since then, K Bank’s deposits have surged.

K Bank recorded a profit of 13.2 billion won in the third quarter, down significantly from 25.6 billion won during the same period in 2022. K Bank attributed the fall in profit to one-off provisions.

There could be trouble ahead for K Bank though. Korean media recently reported that a remarkable 70% of its deposits are tied to cryptocurrency. Since K Bank has about 15 trillion won (US$11.5 billion) in deposits, more than US$8 billion of the total is linked to crypto. What makes this worrisome is that the rules are murky when it comes to protecting customer deposits in the event of say, a run, on the crypto exchange Upbit – or a serious hack.

More exceptions to the rule?

Looking ahead, we do not expect many other digital banks in Asia will be able to replicate the success of WeBank and MYbank in China or Kakao and K Bank in Korea. Incumbent banks have entrenched strategic market positions in both Hong Kong and Singapore, and while there may be niche market opportunities in segments like wealth management for non-ultra high net worth individuals, overall, low-hanging fruit is scarce.

In Southeast Asia, both Indonesia and the Philippines present ample market opportunities, but competition is fierce, while in well-banked Malaysia and Thailand it is unclear how much of an opportunity there really is. What we have observed in Southeast Asia thus far is that large conglomerates are teaming up with platform companies like Sea GroupSE +1.5%, Grab and GoTo as well as Alibaba and Kakao, pooling their significant capital and resources to pursue strategic long-term plays. These juggernauts can afford to be patient and burn a little cash since they are in it for the long run.

Noticeably absent from any of this activity, with very few exceptions, are pure-play digibanking startups, and we expect it will remain that way. In Asia, it seems that digital banking is primarily a means for established tech companies – or telecoms in the case of K Bank, which is backed by KT Corporation – to expand into financial services and thus find new avenues for growth.

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