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.
Slowly but surely, peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is becoming a sustainable and regulated industry in Indonesia. A recent regulatory crackdown aimed at consolidating the sector into a smaller number of compliant, above-board firms has borne fruit. Unlike China, Indonesia has decided that P2P lending can serve a legitimate financial inclusion role. Having the benefit of hindsight, Jakarta moved to proactively regulate P2P lending.
Hong Kong’s virtual banks arrived at a tumultuous time in the city, facing the twin challenges of political tumult and Covid-19. However, the pandemic may have helped spur greater uptake of the online lenders’ services, especially now that Hong Kong has experienced a more severe Covid wave. Important questions remain though: How big is the opportunity in a city of 7. 4 million where 93% of people over 14 have a bank account? And is it realistic to assume that expansion to the mainland will be possible?
It is a testament to the difficulty of establishing a viable international financial center in Asia that so many first-tier cities in the region are vying to compete with Hong Kong yet none is truly a peer competitor. Even Singapore, undoubtedly the most important fintech hub in Southeast Asia if not the entire region, cannot match Hong Kong in the capital markets space. Seoul is the latest Asian city to throw its hat in the ring to become a global financial center.
On April 29, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) awarded digital banking licenses to five consortia primarily led by large tech firms and incumbent financial institutions. The one exception was a consortium that includes Grab and Singtel and is co-led by Kuok Brothers, a massive conglomerate that focuses on real estate, shipping and agribusiness, among other things.
Indonesia’s digibanking sector continues to be among the busiest in Asia Pacific with a flurry of deals in recent weeks. Key deals include buy now pay later (BNPL) firm FinAccel’s purchase of a majority stake in PT Bank Bisnis Internasional and SME financing platform Funding Societies and used car marketplace Carro investing an undisclosed amount in Bank Index Selindo (Bank Index). Indonesian peer-to-peer lender Amartha is also reportedly in talks to acquire 70% of local bank PT Bank Victoria Syariah.
Digital banks tend to lose money in their early years of operation. It is usually not a question of if, but how much. In the case of Taiwan’s banks, the losses are sufficient to potentially require an increase in capitalization. Line Bank lost almost NT$2.3 billion (US$78.7 million) in about one year of operation while Rakuten Bank lost NT$705 million (US$24.1 million).
One good unicorn deserves another. Just five months after the Philippines minted its first fintech unicorn – and indeed first private company to hit a US$1 billion valuation – it has produced another. While the first unicorn was Alibaba-backed Mynt, operator of the GCash e-wallet, the latest one is Tencent-backed Voyager Innovations, which operates the digital wallet PayMaya.
Ant Group and Globe Telecom-backed Mynt was the Philippines' one and only unicorn until April 12 when Voyager hit the milestone. Mynt reached the status last November after raising US$300 million from global investors including Warburg Pincus and Insight Partners. Mynt made good on its promise to become a “double unicorn” by reaching a US$2 billion valuation. While its long-term prospects in the vastly underbanked Philippines look good, questions remain about Mynt’s business model and the timing of an eventual IPO.
Australia’s casino gaming sector has long had lax money laundering controls. However, historically, Australian banks have borne the brunt of regulatory ire for money laundering breaches. Both Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Westpac have paid massive fines for such violations in recent years. However, with AUSTRAC launching a probe into Crown Melbourne and Crown Perth on March 1 and allegations emerging later in the month that the Star Entertainment Group laundered money in Macau, the casino gaming sector is likely to come under much greater scrutiny.
Southeast Asia is the most dynamic market for the digital economy in the world, especially e-commerce and fintech. It has a population of 655.3 million, which ought to be big enough for most young tech companies. Not Sea Group though. Sea has done well in the region, but like many platform companies, it is getting overly ambitious, overextending itself, and making costly mistakes.
We had thought Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) would have announced the winners of Malaysia’s five digital banking licenses by now, as the deadline was originally set for the end of March. The BNM has been mum about any reasons for a delay, though the longer deadline could give Capital A (the erstwhile AirAsia), one of the more enthusiastic applicants for a digital banking license, more time to improve its financial condition. With 29 applicants, there will be many more losers than winners in this race.