It has been an eventful seven months for Ant Group, with more downs than ups. Ever since the suspension of its anticipated blockbuster IPO in November 2020, the fintech giant has been trying to satisfy a long list of regulatory demands to restructure its operations. Regulators have been especially concerned with what they perceive as a highly risky (and previously, lucrative) consumer lending business. With that in mind, Ant gaining approval to operate its new consumer lending unit Chongqing Ant Consumer Finance within six months is an important step in the right direction.
Malaysia’s digital banking race is kicking into high gear as a growing number of firms throw their hats into the ring. There are reportedly 40 firms interested in applying for five digital bank licenses, with the application period closing June 30 and Bank Negara planning to issue the licenses by the first quarter of 2022.
South Korea’s digital banks are on a roll, buoyed by robust demand for digital financial services amid the pandemic. South Korea went cashless long ago with credit cards, but since the pandemic hit in early 2020, mobile banking has taken off. As a result, Kakao Bank, K bank and Toss have grown exponentially. All three of South Korea’s digital banks are on track for IPOs in the next two years, with Kakao likely to go public first.
It never felt so good to lose US$422 million. Just ask Sea Group. Southeast Asia’s most valuable listed company indeed went deeper into the red in the first quarter, but its revenue also grew 147% year-on-year to US$1.76 billion. Investors like what they see. Sea’s stock price has risen almost threefold to US$246 from roughly US$83 a year ago.
Australian regulators are stepping up the fight against financial crime after issuing a staggering US$921.59 million in fines in 2020. Disciplinary action against Westpac for serious breaches of Australia’s AML/CFT act accounted for US$920.7 million of that total.In the Asia-Pacific region, only Malaysia issued more fines than Australia in 2020, and that was because of the 1MDB scandal.
Singapore’s largest lenders have started the year off on a cracking note. First DBS reported record earnings and now OCBC has done the same. The city-state’s second largest bank posted a net profit of S$1.5 billion in the January to March period, compared to S$698 million during the same period a year earlier and well exceeding Refinitiv’s estimate of S$1.08 billion.
South Korea only has a handful of prominent fintechs, but they are still managing to give incumbents a bank a run for their money when it comes to online banking services. Chief among them is Kakao Bank, with 14.1 million users (more than ¼ of South Korea’s population) as well as K bank and Viva Republica’s Toss, which will launch a digital bank later this year. With the rising popularity of digital banking, South Korea’s traditional lenders are mulling launching neobanks of their own.
2021 is shaping up to be a pretty good year for DBS. Southeast Asia’s largest bank posted record earnings of US$1.52 billion in the January-March period, up 72% year-on-year. DBS generated record fee income in the first quarter, with especially strong growth in wealth management and transaction services, both of which hit new highs. DBS is not resting on its laurels though and plans to boost both its digital capabilities and international footprint.
Citibank is calling it quits in many of Asia-Pacific’s retail banking markets, including mainland China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia. Citi’s performance across these markets varies greatly, but overall, the US banking giant feels it lacks the scale to compete in them. Citi plans to focus its Asian retail banking business in the financial centers of Hong Kong and Singapore.
The arrival of digital banks in Hong Kong and Singapore has put some pressure on incumbents to up their game. At a minimum, traditional banks in Asia’s two main financial centers have slashed some unpopular fees and invested in more digital technology. Now that Malaysia has decided to introduce digital banks, its incumbent banks face some similar challenges to their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore.
At long last, Line Bank has arrived in Taiwan. On April 22, the Japanese messaging app’s virtual bank went live, becoming the second digital bank in Taiwan after Rakuten Bank. Line Bank had been hampered by both pandemic and regulatory related delays. It originally planned to launch in mid-2020. Of the three virtual banks approved by the Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC), Line Bank has the strongest digital services ecosystem thanks to the popularity of its messaging app, e-wallet, entertainment and social commerce with Taiwanese consumers.
Singapore is steadily carving out a niche for itself in the emerging green finance segment. Much as it has done with fintech, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is taking steps to make the city-state a hub for this up-and-coming area of financial services. MAS reckons that Asean will need annual green investment of US$200 billion annually. Given its role as the region’s leading financial center, Singapore is a natural choice to lead green financing efforts.
The Philippines is determined to speed up financial inclusion through digitization. By 2023, the BSP aims to digitize at least 50 percent of total retail transactions and bring 70% of Filipino adults into the formal financial system. To that end, it introduced guidelines for digital banks in December 2020 and has thus far received two applications. The rules require licensees to hold at least 1 billion pesos in capitalization, operate a head office in the Philippines and offer only-only banking services. Licensees are not permitted to set up physical branches. The review process will likely carry on through 2021, with the winners being announced on a rolling basis. Yet some fintechs are determined to enter the market earlier.
Singapore’s digital banking race had far more losers than winners. Of all the failed bids, Razer’s must have been among the hardest to swallow. The gaming hardware firm was a strong contender and had Sea and Grab not both been in the running, may well have prevailed. The question now is, can Razer still become a digital bank? The answer is maybe in Malaysia and/or the Philippines.
Thailand is one of the few major Southeast Asian economies that has not unveiled a digital banking roadmap. Singapore's digital banks will go live in 2022. Malaysia will accept applications for licenses this year and issue them by early next year. The Philippines recently announced it would issue digital bank licenses. Indonesia plans to clarify digital bank regulations by mid-2021. In contrast, Thailand's central bank has been quiet about the possibility of digital banks for more than a year.
Australia's digital banking honeymoon is winding down. With Xinja and 86 400 both out of the picture - albeit in very different ways - the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) is moving to raise the sector's barrier to entry. It will become harder to get a banking license. Under the revised regulations, neobanks will have to be better capitalized and launch both an income-generating asset product and a deposit product in order to be approved for a full license.
Hong Kong's virtual banking field is crowded with eight neobanks that have similar value propositions. In their fledging stage, the digibanks have focused on quickly bringing customers onboard, highlighting their digital agility and offering high deposit interest rates for a limited time. The unicorn WeLab, the only native Hong Kong virtual bank, is one of the first to signal it has a broader strategy. WeLab in early March received an undisclosed investment from Allianz Group's digital investment unit as part of its Series C-1 fundraising and plans to collaborate with Allianz's asset management arm to develop wealth management products.
Japan's Line has super app potential. Its messaging app is popular in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. It has content, e-commerce and a growing portfolio of fintech services, with Line Bank set to launch in Taiwan by the middle of the year. And a recent merger with SoftBank affiliate Z Holdings brings an additional US$4.7 billion in capital to the table. The new entity, which integrates Line with Yahoo in Japan, projects that it will post revenue of 2 trillion yen and operating profit of 225 billion yen by fiscal year 2023. It is the brainchild of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, who aims to build a Japanese tech juggernaut able to compete with Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple in Japan.
Fintech is the magic glue that holds startup ecosystems together in Asia. One after another, the region's biggest platform companies have pivoted to fintech, and then declared themselves super apps, usually in that order. Indonesia's Traveloka is expanding its fintech offerings from Indonesia to Thailand and Vietnam as it eyes going public in the U.S. this year through a blank-check company.
Sea Group's latest earnings report is packed with good news. Its gaming and e-commerce businesses grew expeditiously in 2020 as people stayed home, shopped online and played online games. EBITDA surged to US$107 million, compared to a loss of US$178.6 million in 2019. Gross profit doubled to US$1.3 billion from US$604 million a year earlier. Net income, however, remained negative. In fact, net losses widened to US$1.62 billion from US$1.46 billion. The question for Sea and investors is, does it matter?
When South Korea introduced a peer-to-peer (P2P) lending law last year, it seemed regulators had paved the way for the industry to grow stably. Seoul recognized that P2P lending could promote financial inclusion. The industry just needed proper supervision to minimize fraud and loan delinquency. However, the loan delinquency rate is rising, Korea's fintech giants are cutting their ties with P2P lenders and many of the firms are struggling to meet the law's requirements.
South Africa’s TymeBank has big plans for Southeast Asia. The South African neobank plans to launch a digital bank in the Philippines and may also apply for a digital bank license in Malaysia. Measured by account numbers, Tyme is one of Africa’s most successful digibanks, claiming to have signed up almost 3 million customers since its launch two years ago. In late February, Tyme announced it had raised US$109 million from investors for expansion in Southeast Asia, one of the largest deals ever by a fintech in South Africa.
Hong Kong's status as a global financial center and lack of capital controls have long exposed it to certain financial crime risks. In 2020, the former British colony faced an unusual convergence of a recession, political tension and a once-in-a-century pandemic that upended society. Under that tough scenario, Hongkongers were scammed out of a record HK$8.33 billion, of which authorities managed to recuperate about HK$3 billion.
Gojek and Tokopedia are Indonesia's two most valuable startups and preeminent tech firms. Merging the two unicorns, with their mostly complementary services, makes a lot more sense that combining Gojek with its arch-rival Grab. While Grab-Gojek talks dragged on for months, Gojek and Tokopedia will not waste any time. They do not want to fall farther behind high-flying Sea Group, which is outperforming the Indonesian companies on their home turf.
Once upon a time, super apps began as e-commerce platforms or free messaging services. They tapped the network effect to build giant user bases. Because their overhead was low, they could afford to be patient about monetization. Transportation companies do not have the same luxury, especially airlines reeling from the pandemic's effect on air travel. Yet Malaysia-based AirAsia is doubling down on its super app strategy first announced last year. In March, AirAsia will expand its food delivery service airasia food from Malaysia to Singapore.
Since the advent of the internet, technology startups have disrupted one industry after another. It was only a matter of time before they set their sights on financial services.
As it turns out, banking is harder to disrupt than retail, transportation, entertainment or almost anything else. The reason is simple: Trust is paramount in banking and takes time to build, while most digital banks have yet to develop compelling value propositions.
A few of Asia's platform companies have defied this conventional wisdom. The most notable is WeChat, the Tencent-owned app that bundles messaging, digibanking, e-commerce and entertainment under the same umbrella. WeChat was not the first platform company to thrive as a fintech - Alipay was - but it was the first to harness messaging's network effect for that purpose.
P2P lending is one of the fastest growing fintech segments in Indonesia. Demand for credit in Southeast Asia's largest economy is strong while its availability to most Indonesians through the traditional banking system is limited. Indonesia has tens of millions of people who are either underbanked or unbanked. Either way, they cannot easily get a bank loan. P2P platforms offer a convenient alternative. As of October 2020, Indonesia's online lenders had disbursed Rp 56.16 trillion in new loans, up 24% year-on-year, while the NPL ratio was 7.58%, according to data compiled by the country's Financial Services Authority.
Two years ago, Hong Kong made fintech history in Asia as the region's first major economy to greenlight digital banks. As of the end of 2020, all eight of the banks were finally live. Political and covid-related disruptions had delayed their launch. Judging by the digibanks' marketing literature, they are poised to redefine banking in Hong Kong as we know it. The reality is more nuanced.
Fintech crackdowns in China tend to snowball. That was the lesson learned when Beijing began culling crypto and P2P lending firms. At first, it seemed those industry segments might survive if they could assuage regulators. It later became clear that the only way to satisfy regulators was to shut down or move into another line of business, as erstwhile P2P juggernaut Lufax did. China's fintech giants, once seemingly unassailable, now face their own day of reckoning with regulators. Ant Group and its counterparts are probably too big to fail. But they are not too big to be cut down to size.
Barely a month after Xinja's abrupt demise, another Australian neobank is exiting the market. This time though, the said bank is being bought out, not folding like an accordion. It would seem that National Australia Bank (NAB) made 86 400 an offer the neobank could not refuse to the tune of AU$220 million. Shareholders cannot complain. Australia's third-largest lender had already purchased an 18.3% stake during 86 400's Series B fundraising round and says it is paying a premium to the price investors had paid when they invested in the neobank.
Taiwan finally has an operational digital bank. Rakuten International Commercial Bank (RICB), backed by the Japanese e-commerce giant, recently became the first of three digibanks approved by Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) to go live. RICB will initially offer deposits, fund transfer, small loan and debit card services and later expand into mortgages and corporate loans. Rakuten has had an internet bank in Japan (Rakuten Bank) for more than a decade.
Digital banking is a perilous pursuit. Just look at Xinja's sudden collapse or Monzo teetering on the brink. But that has not stopped cash-flush platform companies from trying to ride the digibanking wave to a blockbuster exit. So far, the results are mixed. One of the success stories is Korea's Kakao Bank, which borrowed a page out of WeChat's book and turned a ubiquitous messaging app into a money-making digibank. Kakao Bank is everything most digital banks are not: focused, profitable, and probably sustainable.
Platform companies counting on digibanking to lift their fortunes now routinely refer to themselves as "super apps" in the vein of China's WeChat. The two most prominent of them are Grab and Gojek, Southeast Asia's two most valuable startups. But being super and profitable are not one and the same. Under pressure from investors to reduce their cash burn and produce a viable exit strategy, both companies have sought a game-changing merger that could help them establish market dominance in digital banking. The M&A activity is accelerating pace as Grab and Gojek lose ground to Sea Group in Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy.
Rumors of an impending Grab-Gojek merger are looking more like smoke and mirrors by the day. After all, combine two similar questionable business models and and what do you get? Here is what you do not get: a company capable of slowing Sea Group's momentum in Indonesia. With gaming and e-commerce in the same ecosystem, Sea has stickiness that Gojek and Grab lack. With that in mind, perhaps Gojek could merge with a company able to complement its core services of ride hailing, food delivery and payments. One possibility is Indonesian e-commerce giant Tokopedia.