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.
While Kakao’s fundamentals remain strong, the Korean super app has been struggling of late amid a perfect storm of regulatory travails, investor disappointment and awkward leadership changes. In the past six months, Kakao Bank and Kakao Pay’s shares have both fallen about 29%.
In mid-2021, Revolut became the UK’s most valuable fintech with a valuation of US$33 billion. Though the company lost US$280 million in the 2020 fiscal year, it has continued to spend heavily on expansion efforts in a bid to build a “global financial super app.” Revolut has long had its eye on the Asia-Pacific region and recently moved to strengthen its position in both the India and Australia markets.
Banking has been critical to Revolut’s ascendancy in Europe. However, the company’s origins do not lie in deposit taking and lending. Indeed, Revolut began as a multi-currency travel card offering favorable exchange rates. In India, Revolut is returning to its roots with a focus on cross-border payments, as seen in the company’s recent strategic acquisition of Indian international money transfer firm Arvog Forex for an undisclosed sum. This deal – which follows Revolut’s Indian arm raising US$45.5 million from its UK parent – will allow Revolut to launch a cross-border remittances service for Indian customers in the second half of the year.
The Philippine central bank BSP decided in October 2021 to cap the number of digital bank licenses at six for the next three years. It awarded licenses to Overseas Filipino Bank, Tonik Digital Bank, UNObank, Union Digital Bank, GOtyme and Maya Bank. The BSP wants to see how the arrival of digibanks affects the country’s financial industry before it issues any new licenses. Thus far, the digital lenders appear to be stimulating a huge amount of market activity.
Lax anti-money laundering (AML) controls resulted in Cambodia being placed on FATF’s grey list once again in February 2019. Since then, Cambodia has been trying to improve its AML capabilities but running into one obstacle after another. In Nov. 2021, the United States Department of State cautioned businesses about the risks of doing business in the kingdom in a new report, citing risks for the financial, real estate, casino, and infrastructure sectors.
Indonesia will probably be the first country in Southeast Asia where the reality of digital banking lives up to the hype. The vast archipelago nation has everything online banks need to thrive: a huge market, amenable regulators, sufficient connectivity and eager deep-pocketed investors. Even the complex geography of the country, which is made up of 17,508 islands (6000 of which are inhabited), favors branchless banking.
Thailand is late to Asia’s digital banking party, which formally began back in 2019 when Hong Kong and Singapore approved them – though South Korea had digital banks as early as 2017. Since Asia’s two main financial centers embraced digital banks, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have followed suit. Until now, middle-income and well-banked (85% of the population has a bank account) Thailand has been a hold-out. A recent announcement by the kingdom’s central bank suggests a change of direction.
Kakao seems to have a case of the super-app blues, notably in its two fintech units. Shares of Kakao Bank and Kakao Pay have fallen 39% and 32% since their respective August and November debuts. Between December and late January, the Kakao group lost roughly US$25 billion in market value.
Taiwan’s first two digital banks launched last year, Rakuten Bank in January and Line Bank in April. A third digital lender, Chunghwa Telecom-backed Next Bank, should have launched much earlier but has been hamstrung by repeated regulatory travails. It will go live in in the first quarter of 2022 at the earliest.
As one of the largest Asian economies to greenlight digital banks, Indonesia is attracting a lot of interest from investors. Digital lenders in Indonesia are not competing for mostly secondary accounts as they are in markets like Hong Kong and Singapore. Instead, they are trying to get in on the ground floor. About 66% of Indonesia’s 275 million people are unbanked.
The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated the threat digital financial crime poses to Singapore. Since the pandemic began, the city-state has experienced a surge in online loan, e-commerce and phishing scams. Since 2016, scammers have made off with S$965 million, according to a recent investigation by The Straits Times. A record high of S$268.4 billion was taken in 2020 as the pandemic forced most banking and other transactions online. The threat did not recede in 2021 as seen with the OCBC phishing incident.
Over the past few years, Southeast Asia’s traditional banks, which have historically been digital laggards, have become much more relevant. Leveraging their internal fintech capabilities, as well as best of breed external solutions, across the region, traditional banks are gradually becoming much more digitally adept and able to better serve users in everything from contactless payments to wealth management. The benefits are clear - a Fitch Ratings report argues banks with stronger digital transformation are more likely to secure recurring business and hit profit and innovation targets.