While a certain amount of hype surrounds digital banks, one thing about them is for sure: Their very presence intensifies competition in the market, drawing attention to incumbent complacency. Now that Malaysia’s central bank plans to issue five digital banking licenses in the first quarter of 2022, the country’s traditional banks are moving to head off the challenge – or at least prepare themselves well.

The digitization of life since the coronavirus pandemic began has made  life more convenient in many respects. However, there is a downside to all of the digital activity: Criminals are now more active online than ever, and Singapore is no exception. The city-state known for its low crime rate – extremely low when compared with other developed countries –  is a grappling with a surge in online crime, with loan and investment scams especially problematic.

South Korea’s fintech crackdown has delayed Kakao Pay’s IPO and likely will force the company to do some restructuring to meet regulatory requirements. Kakao Pay’s parent company has also felt regulatory ire. Yet Kakao Bank, the digital bank unit of the platform company, has continued to perform well, as have its competitors K bank and Toss.

Given that Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s largest economy, the decisions it makes about digital banking will have a large effect on fintech development in the region. To date, Jakarta has moved cautiously, despite the pandemic-driven transition to online banking that has swept the region. There are signs, however, that Indonesian regulators are keen to get the ball rolling. They will take a somewhat different approach than their counterparts in Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia though.

All good things come to an end, and sometimes the end is long and drawn out. Such is the state of the latest fintech crackdown in China, which has evolved into an all-out effort to reign in Big Tech/platform companies. The tightening of supervision over firms like Ant Group and Tencent represents a major escalation over prior regulatory campaigns, which focused on cryptocurrency and peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. This time, Beijing is keen to clip the wings of the firms that have come to dominate its once-booming fintech sector. Not all of them are equally affected though.

Just a few months into its digital bank fast-tracking experiment, the Philippines decided to slow things down by limiting the number of digital bank licenses to seven for the next three years, effective September 1. Interest in the digibanking licenses has been strong among both digital upstarts and incumbent lenders, perhaps even stronger than the Philippine central bank (BSP) had expected. The newest winner – and perhaps the last for some time – in the country’s digibanking race is Voyager Innovations’ PayMaya, one of the Philippines’ leading e-wallets.

 

Never short of ambition, Revolut is aiming for an Australia banking license roughly a year after formally launching its app Down Under. The UK neobank unicorn is in discussions with the Australia Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) as it seeks approval to take customer deposits and provide lending services.

Digital banks are fast becoming a fixture of the Asia-Pacific fintech boom, in many ways a manifestation of Big Tech’s desire to become Big Fintech. In contrast to the United States and Europe, where ascendant digital lenders are usually pure-play operations that began as humble startups, APAC has an increasing number of so-called digibank startups backed by the region’s largest tech companies and some major incumbent financial services firms.

The Philippines has returned to an unenviable position: It is once again one of the only East Asian countries on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) Grey list, alongside Cambodia. Countries on the grey list have been flagged by FATF for insufficient anti-money laundering and/or counterterrorism financing controls. Being on the list creates regulatory headaches for financial institutions – such as higher interest rates and processing fees – and can be detrimental to a country’s business environment.

Sea Group just can’t lose when it comes to investor sentiment, even though the company’s losses widened on an annual basis to US$433.7 million in the second quarter from US$393.5 million a year earlier. The day before it reported Q2 earnings, Sea’s share price was about US$291 and as of August 23 it had reached US$315. Over the past year, the stock has risen more than 105% while Sea’s market cap now stands at US$168 billion.

With 37 retail banks for a population of 23.5 million, Taiwan is not the easiest market for digital banks to crack. Just about every Taiwanese adult has a bank account; in fact, many have more than one because of the tendency of companies in Taiwan to require employees to open a bank account with the company bank. Nevertheless, near ubiquitous smartphone penetration and the popularity of certain platform companies’ ecosystems offer digital banks an opening in Taiwan, especially given the effect of the pandemic on people’s banking habits.

We have to hand it to AirAsia: They tell the super app story well, probably better than some of the others whose task is less daunting than the beleaguered airline’s. Indeed, AirAsia is not a high-flying tech company aiming to use fintech to take its valuation and exit to the next level, but an airline facing an existential crisis wrought by the never-ending coronavirus pandemic. If AirAsia pulls off its transformation, it will stand as one of the great turnarounds in recent Asian corporate history, and perhaps pave the way for a new breed of platform company.

Revolut is the biggest neobank most of Asia has never heard of. Try as it might, Revolut just has not been able to make much of an impact in any APAC market yet, which is not a huge surprise given the amount of competition it faces and its distant home base in the UK. Revolut needs something to make it stand out from the crowd in APAC. Its new travel app Stays might be just what the doctor ordered.

It would have been difficult for Singapore’s Big 3 banks – DBS, OCBC and UOB – to beat their performance in the first quarter. That holds especially true for DBS and OCBC, which both posted record earnings in the January-March period. So while all three banks saw earnings fall in the second quarter on a quarterly basis, they still turned in a solid performance that beat analysts’ expectations.

Indonesia is fast becoming the most hotly contested of Southeast Asia’s digital services markets. No other market is both as large and untapped. With that in mind, Singapore’s Sea Group and hometown favorite GoTo have made significant plays in recent months. The former acquired Bank BKE, while Gojek upped its stake in Bank Jago and then merged with Tokopedia. Not to be outdone, Grab is teaming up with Tokopedia's rival Bukalapak. This move finally brings e-commerce into the Singaporean firm's ecosystem and strengthens the hands of both Grab and Bukalapak as they prepare to go public. 

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That seems to be true in just about every market that has introduced digital banks, and it is a two-way street. Hype about the challengers unseating incumbents tends to give way to a more nuanced reality in which there is some room for cooperation. In Australia, where four large banks have long dominated the market, the incumbents are steadily increasing their cooperation with fintechs in a bid to strengthen their digital offerings.

Big Tech may have reached an apex in the United States and China, but in South Korea it is ascendant. In a country where chaebols have long been dominant, it is not hard to imagine internet companies – and indeed fintechs in particular – taking a similar path. And that is exactly what is happening. First, Kakao became a fintech giant, and now it is Viva Republica’s turn. The company, which operates Toss, the largest fintech app in South Korea, recently raised US$410 million at a valuation of US$7.4 billion.

If there ever was a “We are all fintechs now” moment, it must have been earlier this year when Indonesia’s online travel unicorn Traveloka stepped up its rebranding as a digital financial services provider. Skeptics could have been forgiven for rolling their eyes. Yes, the pandemic has hit the travel industry hard and companies like Traveloka need to rejig themselves or they may not survive. On the other hand, not every platform company is suited to reinvent itself as a fintech.

Sea Group is one of the most successful loss-making companies in the world outside of private markets. Sea lost an astronomical amount of money in the first quarter of the year: US$422 million. That is not normally cause for celebration among listed companies, but its revenue also grew 147% year-on-year to US$1.76 billion. Investors are cheering: Sea’s stock price has risen more than 300% to US$283 over roughly the past year. Helping to drive that bullish investor sentiment are expectations about Sea’s potential in Southeast Asia’s nascent but fast-growing digital finance space.

Many of the world’s preeminent platform companies have tried to reinvent themselves as fintechs. Outside of China, South Korea’s Kakao is the only one that is an undisputed success. Kakao boasts South Korea’s largest e-wallet, with 36 million users, and leading digital bank. Both will go public in Korea in August and are likely to raise US$1.4 billion and US$2.3 billion respectively. The speed of Kakao Bank’s swing to profitability (it took just two years) – paving the way for the IPO just four years after its founding – has been remarkable by industry standards.

Just about every major tech company now wants to be a fintech, super app or both. What makes AirAsia different is that its core service has nothing to do with the internet or banking. Indeed, AirAsia is an airline that happens to have a digital services arm. The Malaysia-based firm probably would have stayed that way had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating effect on airlines and the travel industry. AirAsia is now going all in on its super app gambit, applying for a digital banking license in Malaysia and acquiring Gojek’s Thailand business.

In both Singapore and Hong Kong, digital banks are nice to have. In Malaysia, whose digital banking application period ended on June 30, the need for digibanks is somewhat greater. But in the Philippines, where 71 million adults remain unbanked and 1/3 of municipalities lack a banking presence, the need for neobanks is more pressing. With that in mind, the Philippines’ central bank is approving digital banks’ applications on a rolling basis in the hope of reaching key financial inclusion targets by 2023. Tencent-backed Voyager Innovations and RCBC are the two most recent entrants to the country’s digital banking race.

June 30 was the deadline for Malaysia’s digital bank licenses and there were 29 applicants for a maximum of five licenses from a wide variety of would-be neobanks, among them platform companies, incumbent lenders, conglomerates, state governments, fintechs and more. The Malaysian central bank will name the winners of the licenses in early 2022.

The digital banking proposition in Singapore has always been a bit curious. A central tenet of the case for digital banks in the city-state is that, well, Hong Kong has them, and besides, digital lenders can boost financial inclusion – as long as the definition of financial inclusion is broad. 98% of Singaporeans aged 25 and above have a bank account according to Allianz Global Wealth , so when we talk about financial inclusion in Singapore, we are not talking about the same thing as in Indonesia (34% of adults have a bank account) or the Philippines (29% of adults are banked).

China is currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 1/3 of the global total. Beijing is well aware of the effect its emissions have on climate change and has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, with emissions peaking in 2030. As part of its emissions reduction plan, China is introducing more eco-friendly practices in the financial services sector, but there is a steep learning curve.

Australia’s Big Four banks have had their fair share of compliance travails in recent years. That much was made clear in the report produced by The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. Since the report was published in 2019, Westpac and Commonwealth Bank of Australia have borne the brunt of fines issued for money-laundering violations. However, National Australia Bank (NAB) is now the one in AUSTRAC’s crosshairs.

Earlier this year, it was unclear if peer-to-peer (P2P) lending had a future in South Korea. Legislation passed in August 2020 to curb malfeasance in the industry had made it harder to operate legally. This legislation banned P2P lenders from lending money they borrow from commercial banks and required they have paid-in capital of at least 500 million won (US$440 million) and register with the Financial Services Commission (FSC) within a year. The regulator’s decision to license several prominent P2P lenders signals that the industry has a way forward in South Korea.

In their first year of operation, Hong Kong’s virtual banks all lost money. Ant Bank lost the least at HK$172 million while Standard Chartered-backed Mox Bank lost the most at HK$456 million, according to the banks’ respective annual reports. While it is still early days for Hong Kong’s digital lenders, it appears a few of them are pulling ahead of the pack.

For digital banks, the Philippines is among the most promising markets in Southeast Asia because of its large overall size (population 110 million) and significant unbanked population. About 71% of adults in the Philippines people lack a bank account, but more than 2/3 of the population has a smartphone. Thus far, the BSP has issued three of the five digital bank licenses up for grabs. In April, Overseas Filipino Bank (OF Bank), a subsidiary of government-owned Land Bank of the Philippines, received one. In June, the BSP awarded two more digital banking licenses, one to Tonik and one to UNObank.

Indonesia’s peer-to-peer (P2P) lending sector is growing steadily after a pandemic-induced slowdown in 2020. Regulators, mindful of the sector’s ability to boost financial inclusion but wary of the risks that can build up when oversight is too light, have been gradually issuing licenses to legitimate companies while penalizing bad actors.

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