Cambodia has been on the gray list of the international financial crime watchdog FATF for several years due to its inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls. Gray list designation requires additional levels of compliance for international financial transactions with the kingdom, which while not a dealbreaker for foreign investment in Cambodia, makes it more troublesome than in countries not on the list. As Cambodia emerges from the pandemic, it is eager to be removed from the gray list to help boost its Covid-battered economy, which contracted 3.1% in 2020 and grew just 2.6% in 2021.
Since being placed on FATF’s grey list in 2020, Cambodia has moved to strengthen its money laundering controls. One key step has been to move towards stricter regulation of its crime-ridden casino gaming sector. Cambodia has nearly 200 casinos, but its National Assembly only approved a draft law on commercial gaming management in November 2020. The draft law implemented controls to stymie money laundering and terrorism financing as well as monitor casinos, establish gambling zones and set forth minimum investment thresholds for a new casino.
To supplement the law, in August 2021 two sub-decrees were issued by the government to establish a new regulatory body, the Cambodian Commercial Gaming Commission (CCGC), to deal with licensing issues, issue guidelines, propose new regulations and resolve disputes. The decrees also introduced new minimum capital requirements for casino operators. Thereafter, new regulations were added to the original text to ensure its effective implementation.
Further, in June 2022, Cambodia enacted the Law on the Prevention of Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism. The law is a response to both rising incidence of money laundering and human trafficking, crimes which both surged following the transformation of Sihanoukville in Preah Sihanouk province into a casino-resort hub.
While the establishment of this legislation is indeed a step in the right direction, it is only the first step. For FATF inspectors, the devil will be in the details: To what degree has the legislation been effectively implemented?
This especially applies to the Cambodian financial sector. It is unclear to what degree banks and other financial institutions in the country have improved their ability to combat illicit money flows. Cambodia Financial Intelligence Unit (CAFIU), the National Bank unit responsible for combating money laundering, said in 2020 that it had been “working very hard” to delist the country from FATF’s grey list but did not offer many specifics.
FATF inspectors will visit Cambodia in early 2023 to assess how much progress has been made on implementing the watchdog’s recommendations. Cambodian officials say that based on primary reports received from the National Bank of Cambodia and others, the Kingdom has made substantial progress in strengthening its money laundering controls over the past two years.
One way that FATF inspectors determine if a country’s AML/CFT controls are adequate is by analyzing prosecution of related crimes. Even if a country has enacted comprehensive legislation targeting financial crime, if there are few incidences of prosecutions the financial crime watchdog may be unsatisfied with the country’s progress.
Given the fall in international travel during the pandemic, Cambodia has had fewer opportunities to catch people illegally bringing large amounts of money into the country. However, in 2019, it did make some related high-profile arrests. According to The Phnom Penh Post, in 2019, Cambodia confiscated more than US$10 million in cash illegally imported by foreigners. In one instance, three Chinese nationals who were US$900,000 in cash in their luggage without any clear source were arrested. In another case, two Koreans with more than US$2 million in cash were arrested.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, digital banks have sprung up at a rapid rate in recent years. Regulators have ostensibly encouraged the establishment of online-only banks to spur greater competition in the banking sector, which in most markets is dominated by incumbent lenders afflicted with complacency of varying severity.
China’s fintech sector was never the same after November 3, 2020. That was the day Chinese regulators abruptly nixed Ant Group’s mega IPO, a dual Shanghai and Hong Kong listing that was expected to raise US$37 billion and value the Chinese fintech giant at a whopping US$315 billion. The cancellation of Ant’s IPO proved to be the beginning of an extended campaign to curb the dominance of Big Tech in China’s financial services industry.
The Hong Kong financial center lexicon is ever expanding. Depending whom you ask, Hong Kong is an international financial center, Asia’s most important financial center, China’s offshore financial center or some combination of all three. Historically, Hong Kong liked to stay out of politics and thrived on its combination of laissez-faire capitalism, strong, independent legal system and knack for acting as a bridge to the Chinese mainland. Going forward, those factors will remain integral to Hong Kong’s success, but important questions remain about how economic and financial policy choices on the mainland will affect the city’s fortunes.
The Philippines recently experienced a setback in its fight against financial crime: The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) declined to remove the Southeast Asian country from its grey list, on which it was placed in June 2021 for having inadequate money-laundering and counterterrorism financing controls. After a two-day plenary in October, Paris-based FATF decided to keep the Philippines on the list along with 22 other jurisdictions.
The newest digital bank in Singapore stealthily came into existence, flying below the radar in contrast to the high-profile race for digital banking licenses that ended with victories by Grab-Singtel, Sea, Ant Group and a consortium headed by China’s Greenland Holdings. Now competing with these four digital banks is Trust Bank, launched in September by Standard Chartered and NTUC FairPrice, Singapore’s largest supermarket chain.
Thailand has never been in a rush to introduce digital banks. After all, the kingdom is neither a financial center like Hong Kong or Singapore, nor does it have a huge unbanked population likes Indonesia and the Philippines. About 81% of Thais have a bank account. However, it is possible that introducing online banks could improve competition in Thailand’s financial sector – and that appears to be one of the key goals of the Bank of Thailand (BoT) as it moves forward on digital banks.
Being placed under increased monitoring by the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) is never welcome news for a country. Besides the reputational damage that comes along with such a designation, there are many practical problems caused by the restrictions that may be put on financial transactions as well as burdensome compliance requirements. Most countries are put on FATF’s gray list due to inadequate money laundering and counterterrorism financing controls. However, occasionally a country is added to the blacklist – reserved for the countries that pose the most serious financial crime risks – including North Korea and Iran – which is what happened to Myanmar last month.
The proof of the tentative state of Australia’s bid to introduce greater competition into its financial services sector is in the pudding: The country’s big four incumbent lenders have increased in size despite the high-profile launches of different neobanks in recent years. Of that crop of upstarts, the last one left standing is Judo Bank. The others have either collapsed or been acquired. Meanwhile, the big four are arguably stronger than ever.
Ever since news of the 1MDB scandal broke, Singapore has been on heightened alert for financial crime. As Southeast Asia’s premier financial hub, it faces certain risks. In the past few years, it has been grappling with a rise in digital financial crime that has dovetailed with the timeline of the coronavirus pandemic. While online scams and phishing remain a vexing problem, the city-state now also has to contend with bad actors in the cryptocurrency sector in which it has invested considerable resources.
In recent years, digital banks have become increasingly common in Asia Pacific, including in the region’s advanced economies. Though these markets are well banked, regulators have sought to introduce greater market competition and promote digital transformation among oft-complacent incumbents.
Given the ever-more complex geopolitical situation, it is well worth examining the state of renminbi internationalization. Lofty goals mooted in the early 2010s, such as a free float of the Chinese currency, and full convertibility of the capital account, seem out of reach for the foreseeable future. Nor is the renminbi becoming a dominant global reserve currency. Rather, its use is rising in specific use cases, such as bilateral trade settlement, often due to geopolitical considerations.
A commentary in collaboration with Banking Circle.
As Australian banks in recent years have been hit with unprecedentedly high fines for money-laundering violations, they have stepped up de-risking to reduce their exposure to the types of clients they believe could land them in regulatory hot water. In some cases, the banks simply refuse to do business with firms without good reason.
When we talk about countries that have inadequate anti-money laundering (AML) and counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls, we usually mention how those deficiencies can cause a country to be pleased on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) gray list. Asian countries with the gray list designation who are working to be removed from it include the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar. But there is a more serious designation for countries seen as dangerous conduits for illicit financial activity: the blacklist. Unfortunately for Myanmar, it may soon end up on the blacklist.
We wish we can say we are surprised but we are not: Taiwan’s digital banks are failing to disrupt the country’s financial services sector. While showing potential to exist as digital financial services platforms in a way incumbent Taiwanese lenders do not, Line Bank, Rakuten Bank and Next Bank nonetheless have a long road ahead to reach profitability, with only lending offering money-making (rather than losing) possibility in the short term. For at least the next few years, the digital lenders will struggle to break even on deposits and payments, while they are for the time being restricted from potentially more lucrative businesses like wealth management.
In the past three years, Hong Kong has faced unprecedented challenges that have brought into question its future as a financial center. Strict adherence to a zero-Covid policy has been particularly impactful. The inability of businesspeople to freely travel to and from Hong Kong has adversely affected the city’s business environment. Still, in certain respects, Hong Kong is continuing to thrive as a financial center.
Ending up on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list is unenviable. For developed economies and FATF members like Australia, it is not a common occurrence. However, FATF has previously found certain elements of Australia’s anti-money laundering (AML) controls deficient, and many of the same problems keep occurring. In recent years, several of the country’s largest banks have been slapped with massive fines, while its casinos are not doing enough to fight financial crime.
Indonesia is the most important market for Alibaba in Southeast Asia and arguably its most important market outside of China, period. Increasingly, Alibaba is focused on Indonesia’s burgeoning digital financial services market. Yet Alibaba recognized early on that it would be impossible to replicate the Alipay model outside of China and instead chose to take strategic stakes in various Indonesian fintech firms or companies with financial services arms.
No country likes to end up on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list. It means that FATF has determined a country’s anti-money laundering (AML) and/or counterterrorism financing (CFT) controls are somewhat deficient. It could be worse – they have a black list too – but that is reserved for the likes of North Korea. The Philippines has been on the FATF grey list since June 2021 and is hoping to exit by January 2023. But it will not be an easy task given persistent concerns about the country’s Bank Secrecy Law, inadequate regulation of the casino gaming sector and seeming reluctance to use the law to fight financial crime more aggressively.
We cannot think of a single Asian market where the arrival of digital banks has upended the competitive landscape. That’s not to say that digital lenders cannot put pressure on incumbents, especially to up their digital game and do something about that clunky legacy IT infrastructure. It is just that getting people to switch banks is much harder than doing the same for say, ride-hailing or food-delivery apps. With the arrival of digital banks in Malaysia, most incumbent lenders will feel some pressure, and consolidation may be in some of their interests, but the big players are unlikely to lose significant market share.
Despite being recent arrivals to the Philippine financial services market and not having – at least for the most part – a large deposit base yet, the country’s digital banks are shaking up the market, prompting major fintechs without banking licenses and traditional lenders alike to step up their game. The Philippine central bank recently greenlighted one more digital bank, GoTyme, to start its operations while both UNObank Inc. and Aboitiz-led UnionDigital Bank Inc. started commercial operations last month.
South Korea’s Toss Bank is experiencing exponential growth amid strong demand for digital financial services and weak digital offerings from incumbent lenders. From the time of its launch in October 2021 through the end of June, online bank had opened 3.6 million accounts. Toss has added 2.5 million accounts this year, a pace of growth that more than doubles its first three months of operation, when it signed up 1.1 million customers. Further, Toss’s loan books have reached 4 trillion won.
Japan’s Rakuten first announced plans for an initial public offering of its online banking unit in September 2021 amid fierce competition with Amazon and as it faced steep costs from building a mobile network. 10 months later, the Japanese platform company said that it had applied to list its online banking unit on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. It has not yet, however, given any specific guidance as to when the IPO will occur.
The demise of yet another Australian neobank brings to mind Queen’s hit 1980 song, “Another One Bites the Dust.” With the abrupt collapse of Volt, which said in late June it would cease operations and return AU$100 million in customer deposits after failing to raise AU$200 million, the Australian neobanking experiment’s last chance for success is Judo, which listed on ASX last year and has reached profitability. Otherwise, now both Xinja and Volt have collapsed, while 86 400 was acquired by National Australia Bank (NAB) in early 2021.
Hong Kong is battling a surge in financial crime committed both online and by telephone. The uptick in fraudulent activity coincided with the city’s worst Covid-19 surge, which occurred in the first quarter of this year. At the time, Hongkongers were largely confined to their apartments; the economy was in its worst state of the pandemic, shrinking by 4%, and the government imposed especially harsh measures to slow the spread of the hyper-infectious omicron variant. These conditions led to higher unemployment and greater desperation in the population, making some people easy prey for fraudsters.
China has been cracking down on fintech in one form or another since September 2017 when it set out to clip the wings of its then flourishing cryptocurrency industry. Next up on the chopping block was peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. Both industries are shells of their former selves, which suits Beijing just fine given their risk profiles. However, the crackdown on China’s systemically important tech companies has had ripple effects in the broader economy and China’s leadership recently signaled that a change of direction may be near.
2022 is turning out to be the year that Asia’s super apps must swallow their pride. For Korea’s Kakao, whose digital bank became the country’s most valuable lender following its IPO in August 2021, the fall from grace has been swift and painful. Both Kakao Bank and the company’s payments arm Kakao Pay have struggled with falling market capitalizations since late 2021, while a scandal in which Kakao Pay executives swiftly sold off their shares in the company after the IPO undermined public trust in the Kakao brand. Ant Group’s decision to reduce Alipay's stake in Kakao Pay has dealt another blow to the Korean platform company.
Chinese fintech giant Ant Group announced the soft launch of its Singapore digital bank ANEXT with fanfare earlier this month. The announcement came nearly three years after the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) said it would issue up to five digital banking licenses. Now that ANEXT has finally gone live, it is worth assessing its prospects. The bank holds a digital wholesale banking (DWB) license, which allows it to serve non-retail customers only. ANEXT plans to develop an open framework for financial institutions together with MAS-backed Proxtera, a hub connecting B2B marketplaces, trade associations and service providers. While Ant has high hopes for ANEXT’s potential to serve SMEs in Singapore, it is likely to face some significant challenges in the city-state’s ultra-competitive financial services market.
Asia’s platform companies had a great run, but amid a shaky global economy they have no choice but to make substantive changes to their business models. For most of these companies, the biggest problem is that they do not make enough money to offset their costs. Until very recently their primary focus was on user numbers rather than profitability. Indonesia’s GoTo, despite some strong fundamentals working in its favor, probably will have to undergo a painful transition if it expects to thrive in the long term.
While digital banks are all too often hyped, in the Philippines’ case online lenders truly have a large market opportunity. Incumbents have limited reach and there is a large unbanked population, estimated at 47% of adults (31.5 million people) as of early 2021 by Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the Philippine central bank. Of the 53% with bank accounts, there is undoubtedly a considerable underbanked population. The Philippine digibank Tonik reckons that the country’s retail savings market is valued at up to US$140 billion and its unsecured consumer lending market at US$100 billion.
In August 2021, The Bangkok Post ran an article entitled “Thailand ripe for a digital banking battle” that captured the conventional wisdom about the prospects for online lenders in the kingdom, which is that there is a significant market opportunity for them due to lagging digitization among incumbents rather than the existence of a significant unbanked population. About 82% of Thais have a bank account, though by one estimate 48% of the population is underserved. Yet the opportunity for digital banks could be shrinking as big traditional lenders accelerate digital transformation and the government introduces real-time retail payments possible with only a mobile number.
Internationalization of the renminbi has taken a different path than what seemed likely when the process began in the early 2010s. At the time, many observers expected China would gradually open its capital account and allow its currency to float freely. These steps were seen as integral for China to achieve a commensurate status in the international financial system that it already enjoys in the global economy. Yet political considerations have increasingly outweighed financial ones, and renminbi internationalization is instead evolving inside a less open ecosystem than expected.
The digitization of financial services in Taiwan has dovetailed with rising online scams, but compared with many other economies, Taiwan did not experience a surge in such illicit activity for most of the pandemic. The reason is that Taiwan adhered to a de facto zero-Covid policy that kept infections down for more than two years. It was only in the past few months when the hyper-infectious omicron variant penetrated Taiwan’s defenses amid a wobbly global macroeconomic environment that online financial crime began to skyrocket.