Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten has struggled in recent years amid intensifying competition in its domestic market and high costs linked to its decision to move into mobile communications. However, digital financial services is a bright spot for Japan’s largest platform company and Rakuten Bank’s April 2023 IPO – which raised US$624 million – was Japan’s largest market debut since 2018 when SoftBank’s telecoms unit raised US$23 billion. The stock has gained more than 36% since then and is currently trading at 2,627 yen (US$17.49).

As a core fintech service, payments are often tougher to monetize than higher-margin segments like lending, and this helps to explain why Kakao’s digital banking unit continues to outperform its payments arm. While Kakao Bank had yet another record year in 2023, the South Korea tech juggernaut’s payments swung to a loss. Kakao Pay has been trying to follow the Ant Group (a key Kakao Pay investor) formula which worked so well for the Chinese company – operating payments and digibanking as two distinct businesses. But we wonder if this model will work for the Korean company in the long run.

Of the five digital banks in Singapore, just three are active in the retail market, and with good reason. The city-state’s population has an exceedingly low number of financially excluded people, with Allianz Global Investment estimating that 98% of Singaporeans aged 25 and up have a bank account. That is not to say there are not opportunities for digital banks, but it depends on how one defines “underbanked.” 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

The market opportunity for digital banks in Hong Kong has always been open to interpretation, and their balance sheets (with a few exceptions) 4.5 years after the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) announced it would allow online lenders reflects that reality. The Greater Bay Area could offer some additional opportunities, but like most of China, it has achieved a reasonably strong level of financial inclusion. For these reasons, as we observe Hong Kong-based WeLab launch a digital bank in Indonesia, we think that it has a more promising business strategy than some of its competitors. To be sure, Indonesia has increasing digital banking competition, but a large segment of the population remains unbanked and underbanked.

Across Southeast Asia, the business models of platform companies are being put to the test – and the results are still inconclusive. We can appreciate that a focus on quarterly earnings may obscure positive long-term trends – and Sea did not have the best quarter – but it is undeniable that the much-heralded ecosystem business model that emerged in the past few years could have some fundamental problems. In the case of Sea Group, it has a promising digital financial services business that grew out of its earlier ventures in e-commerce and gaming, but the latter two businesses are struggling. We still like their odds better than ride hailing and food delivery, but Sea has figure out a way to turn them around and revamp the synergies that drove the company’s share price to an apex of almost US$367 in October 2021. It has since lost about 90% of its value and trades around US$37.

Not all Southeast Asian platform companies are created equal, nor do they perform equally. Unlike some of its counterparts, Bukalapak has never swung for the fences. Rather, it has focused on its substantial home market of Indonesia and building a digital services ecosystem for Southeast Asia’s largest economy that increasingly features more financial products. The strategy appears to be bearing fruit, and Bukalapak has recorded seven straight quarters of adjusted EBITDA profitability.

The plot continues to thicken in one of the largest money laundering cases in Singapore’s history. Complicating matters is the sensitivity of certain aspects of the case, given the large number of ethnic suspects with ties to China and the multiple banks both local and international ensnared in the ongoing investigations.

Grab, founded in 2012, hit a milestone in the third quarter: It recorded its first profit on an adjusted EBITDA basis. The Singapore-based platform company is better known for burning almost unfathomable amounts of cash in a race to build scale, so adjusted EBITDA of US$29 million is a significant achievement. The company’s revenue rose 61% on an annual basis to US$615 million while its losses fell to US$99 million. The question now is if Grab has turned a corner decisively and is headed for long-term profitability in the vein of Alibaba, Tencent and Amazon, or if it is more likely to struggle to stay out of the red like Uber and Lyft.

Observing that GoTo managed to reduce its losses in the third quarter, we are wondering to what extent this platform company created from a merger of Indonesia’s two most prominent tech startups is on the right track. Its stock hit a 52-week nadir of 54 rupiah on October 16, but since then, boosted by investor enthusiasm about its quarterly earnings, has risen to more than 40% to 76 rupiah.

Some incumbent banks may be slow to digitize, but apparently not the big commercial lenders in Thailand. We have been tracking the transformative digitization of Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) for several years now and are intrigued to see that another large Thai lender is adopting an aggressive digital-first strategy. Given its humble roots as Thai Farmers Bank (established in 1945 with registered capital of 5 million baht), Kasikornbank, commonly known as KBank, has come a long way. As Thailand’s second largest commercial bank today, it should be observed with great interest as it accelerates digitization efforts and invests in new segments of financial services.

South Korea’s three digibanks have been unusually successful given the high rate of failure, or at least underperformance, in this segment of financial services. The reasons for their success are many, from innovative business models to the weak digital offerings of incumbents, but support from regulators has also been crucial. We will now find out just how much confidence regulators have in these upstarts as they face rising delinquency rates that are a natural result of their focus on non-top tier borrowers.

2023 may end up being a year that many fintechs want to put behind them. With interest rates high, inflation stubborn and the global economy a tad wobbly, it has not been the best year for fintech funding, even in Asia Pacific, where so much of the fintech development story has been taking place in recent years. That said, funding has been more resilient in India than in many other markets, especially in the third quarter of the year.

What about that UK banking license? That’s the question on Revolut’s mind and many others as the UK’s preeminent fintech unicorn nears the end of another calendar year without the ability to offer government-insured deposits, business loans, consumer loans and so on in its home market. It is sometimes overlooked that for all of Revolut’s swagger on the international stage, the UK remains its largest market, and that regulators in other jurisdictions from Australia to India to the U.S. are watching and waiting to see if the UK grants Revolut the license or not.

There has been a fair bit of buildup to the launch of the Philippines’ sovereign wealth fund, the Maharlika Investment Fund, which is supposed to happen by the end of the year. It is a personal initiative of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. which he seems to believe can help his country advance some of its key development goals. So we have to say were surprised when it was reported last week that the sovereign wealth fund would be suspended.

Having built one of the only successful super apps outside of China, with both a thriving digital bank and payments platform, Kakao has decided it is time to expand overseas. Its first foreign market is Thailand, where it is partnering with Siam Commercial Bank (SCB). Next up is Indonesia, where Kakao is partnering with a couple of heavyweight companies on a digital banking venture.

In April, The Ken reported that one of the reasons Malaysia’s digital banks have been slow to launch is that they have had trouble finding the right people to run the new businesses. Apparently, finding talent with the right mix of technological acumen and understanding of the banking business is not so easy in Malaysia – perhaps because the country has been less of a hub for tech startups than some other countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, in early September, Grab’s GXBank-Berhad became the first of Malaysia’s online banks to launch. 

As the massive money laundering case involving 10 people of Chinese descent continues to unfold in Singapore, we wonder if this might just be the third act in a multi-part perfect storm that also involve Three Arrows Capital and some other shady operations. In a nutshell, Singapore, with perhaps the exception of its relatively quiet capital markets, has come into its own as a financial hub in recent years, attracting unprecedented sums from venture capitalists, a huge amount of attention and investment from the crypto community, and a massive influx of Chinese capital that has translated into a broader family office and wealth management boom. With so much money moving into and through the city-state, financial crime risks multiply and authorities have to be more proactive than in the past.

Versa is aiming to disrupt the Malaysian wealth management market with its all-digital platform, which has benefited from ample investor interest and funding, as well as rapid customer acquisition. In 2022, Versa’s gross transaction volume doubled year on year, and the company aims to sustain this pace of growth until 2026.

Greenland Financial Holdings has always been an unusual candidate for operating a digital bank in Singapore. The company is in essence a large state-owned real estate developer based in Shanghai. Compared to tech and telecoms giants that won the other licenses in the city-state, Greenland is less market oriented. It’s more like a real estate arm of the Chinese government. Given the trouble that China’s property sector has been experiencing, as well as a recent bond default, it is worth pondering if Greenland’s digital bank in Singapore could be affected.

It’s always good to revisit assumptions, especially when the bank you are analyzing is an offshoot of an incumbent as large as Standard Chartered. When we initially heard that there was a new kid on the block among the digital banks in Singapore – but not altogether “new” – we were skeptical because the value proposition was anchored in, well, groceries. It’s just not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about how to build a successful lender. That said, the ecosystem play by Standard Chartered and Fair Price Group appears to be bearing fruit (no pun intended).

Page 1 of 20