In April, the Hong Kong-based fintech startup WeLab quietly won the former British colony's fourth virtual-banking license. Founded in 2013 by ex-Citibank executive Simon Loong and two other partners, the company has steadily grown over the last six years. It now has 30 million customers in Hong Kong and mainland China as well as a staff 600 strong. The company expects to launch its virtual bank - named WeLab Digital - between October and January.
Hong Kong banking giant HSBC can no longer rest on its laurels: The virtual banks are coming. With its deep local roots and wealthy customer base, HSBC has long been the dominant retail bank in the city. With the arrival of internet-only banks backed by the likes of tech giants such as Alibaba and Tencent, HSBC faces serious native digital competition for the first time.
KoinWorks, Indonesia's largest P2P lending platform, has raised US$16.5 million in its Series B funding round, signaling strong interest for alternative lending sources in Southeast Asia's largest economy. Established in 2016, KoinWorks caters to the underbanked and unbanked alike in Indonesia, whose scant credit profiles do not sit well with traditional lenders.
With an eye on going public, Singapore's ride-hailing giant Grab needs to show profitability, or failing that, strong potential to be in the black soon. Serving as a high tech taxi or food delivery service no longer looks like it will be enough for investors. Instead, Grab wants to be a go-to digital bank. If Singapore regulators grant Grab a virtual-banking license, the company will be poised to test out its fintech hypothesis in its home market.
Indian fintech giant Paytm is reportedly in talks to acquire the Mumbai-based insurtech firm Coverfox for $100-$120 million in cash. If the acquisition is a success, it will be the largest by Paytm and mark the firm's arrival to India's insurtech segment with a bang, posing a direct challenge to market leader Policybazaar.
Australia's banks are in for quite a fight if Morgan Stanley's new report is accurate. The U.S. investment bank estimates in its newest Australia In Transition report that digital wallets could capture US$22 billion of revenue that in a less digitized world would have gone to the banks. Morgan Stanley's advice for the banks is blunt: Up your digital game before it's too late.
Korea's would-be challenger banks received a stern rebuke from the nation's Financial Supervisory Commission in May as the top financial regulator rejected applications for a virtual-banking license from Viva Republica-backed Toss Bank and Kiwoom Securities-backed Kiwoom Bank. The regulator found Toss's capital situation problematic and Kiwoom's plan unfeasible. Both Toss Bank and Kiwoom Bank could re-apply for internet-banking licenses later in the year.
Chinese peer-to-peer lending firms, reeling from the crackdown on P2P business at home, are starting to look for new business overseas. The fledgling India market is of great interest to several Chinese P2P companies, including 9F Group, CashBUS, and WeShare, according to reports in India's English-language media. The Chinese firms are attracted by India's huge size, steady economic growth and relative easy of market entry.
For the first time in over two decades, China’s central bank has taken control of a private bank. Baoshang Bank Co. which was founded in 1998 is headquartered in Baotou. With assets worth about 576 billion yuan ($83 billion) the lender is well established in the Inner-Mongolia region. Tomorrow Group, which holds around 89 percent of Baoshang Bank is claimed to have expropriated a serious amount of capital leading to major credit problems.
South Korean regulators have dealt a blow to the ambitions of Kiwoom Securities and Viva Republica by rejecting their respective applications for a banking license. Both of those firms had sought to launch a challenger bank that would have competed with K bank and Kakao bank, who have operating for several years in Korea.
South Korea's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) said that it rejected Kiwoom Bank because it was not sufficiently innovative, while the regulator saw governance and financing problems in Viva's Toss Bank.
UK-based fintech Revolut has done well in Europe, where it is among the region's most prominent challenger banks. Before it acquired a banking license, Revolut built up a large customer base by offering a Visa or Mastercard-branded card tied in with a multi-currency account that allows users to transact in foreign currency on their smartphones at the interbank rate. Revolut has gradually added more services for users, such as no-fee ATM withdrawals overseas, pay-per-day insurance and the option to purchase cryptocurrency.
Taiwan may be the only market in Asia that can be called overbanked, making it a true regional outlier. In these commentaries, we usually discuss Asia's unbanked or underbanked populations. In Pakistan, for instance, 100 million people - almost half of the population - do not have a bank account. They are unbanked. The country as a whole is underbanked. In Taiwan, however, nearly every adult has several bank accounts. Taiwanese firms often ask workers to open a bank account at the company's preferred bank. Many people open new accounts each time they change jobs.
Chinese internet giant Alibaba has been trying to go global for years. Yet its core e-commerce business - made in and for China - remains dependent on its home market. The key revenue generators, the online shopping platforms Taobao and Tmall, barely have a footprint outside of Greater China.
Rather than take those platforms overseas, Alibaba hopes to become dominant in China's near abroad by acquiring stakes in local e-commerce champions, like Singapore's Lazada and Indonesia's Tokopedia. Alibaba wants to replicate the ecosystem that has worked so well in its home market of an e-commerce platform, logistics and of course, digital banking.
Ping An is a Chinese holding conglomerate with one of the largest market values in the country. Founded in 1988, it is valued at over $125 billion and is the largest insurer in the world to this date. Ping An is known for its fintech subsidiary, OneConnect which is a cloud-based technology service designed for small to medium-sized financial companies. OneConnect is the largest financial cloud platform across all of China and stretches all the way to Singapore.
Singapore's race with Hong Kong to become Asia's fintech hub is heating up as the city-state mulls issuing licenses for virtual banks. Both cities have long been major regional banking centers. With Hong Kong increasingly reliant on business from mainland China, Singapore has a chance to capture more regional business, especially from Asean.
Formerly one of Asia's poorest countries, Bangladesh has made remarkable economic progress in recent years. Today, it has a higher GDP per capita than its neighbor Pakistan as well as Cambodia and Myanmar. This year, it is likely to be Asia's fastest growing economy: The Asian Development Bank forecasts annual GDP growth to reach 8%, while the World Bank expects growth of 7.3%.
Yet the development of Bangladesh's financial sector has not kept pace with that of the overall economy. Among the country's 163 million people, 75% (122 million) are unbanked. Smartphone penetration, meanwhile, is forecast to reach 75% by 2021, while the population is young and open to mobile banking. Cash still accounts for 94% of transactions, according to the United Nations, while no credit or debit card companies have established a significant presence. Therein lies a strong opportunity for fintechs.
An increasing number of fintechs are entering the Australian market, posing a growing challenge to the country's banking incumbents. In April, Judo became the second Australian challenger bank to receive a license this year after Volt Bank in January. Two additional neo-banks, Xinja and 86 400, have applied for their banking licenses and are awaiting the regulator's decision.
With a banking license, Judo can operate without restrictions and is well poised to compete against incumbents. The four heavyweights that dominate the Australian banking market, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac Banking Corp, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and National Australia Bank, have come under increasing criticism following a misconduct probe into the nation's finance industry that revealed occurrences of bribery to win mortgage business and fees charged to deceased account holders, among other malfeasance.
Indonesia's super-app Go-Jek has borrowed a page out of both Uber and WeChat's books on its way to hallowed decacorn status - valuation of US$10 billion. Like Uber, Go-Jek began as a humble ride-hailing app. It soon expanded into food delivery, just as Uber did with Uber Eats. Go-Jek then added digital banking services as China's Tencent did with WeChat Pay and WeBank. One of Go-Jek's goals is to gain a strong foothold in internet banking as Tencent has in China. Singapore-based Grab (in the Indonesian market through its stake in Ovo) has a similar plan, and just might be a match for Go-Jek. What about Indonesia's banking incumbents though? They can't just stand by idly while the super apps eat their lunch.
Among Asian countries, Pakistan is a relatively slow adopter of fintech, but it also has great need for easy-to-access digital financial services. Pakistan has a population of more than 210 million people, just 7% who have a bank account. High banking infrastructure costs have excluded most people from the formal financial system.There are several factors that make Pakistan an especially promising future fintech market. First, Pakistan's smartphone penetration is forecast to reach 50% by 2020 - that's more than 105 million potential customers. Second, Pakistan is one of the youngest countries in the world. 64% of the population is younger than 30 and 29% is aged 15-29, according to the United Nations' National Human Development Report. Young people are typically more willing to bank with their smartphones.
South Korea's challenger banks face an increasingly tough competitive and regulatory environment despite having accrued a considerable user base. Kakao Bank, operated by Korean mobile messaging giant Kakao, and K bank, led by telecommunications firm KT, aim to offer a wider array of banking services, but past missteps could prevent them from securing the approval of Korea's Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC). At the same time, several new virtual banks are expected to enter the Korean market later this year.
Foreign banks have a negligible presence in China, the world's largest consumer market. Research by KPMG has found that foreign banks hold about 1.3 % of China's domestic banking assets as of late 2017, compared to roughly 2.4% a decade earlier. Brokerages have not fared better. In 2015, UBS Securities and JPMorgan First Capital ranked 95th and 120th, respectively, among China's 125 brokerages by net income, according to the Securities Association of China.
China's Big Four state-owned banks, renowned for their massive market capitalization and close ties to the Chinese government, have long played a key role in the PRC's traditional financial system. An important challenge they - Bank of China (BOC), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) China Construction Bank (CCB) and Agricultural and Commercial Bank of China (ACBC) - face today is developing a digital-first strategy. Among the four, only CCB has has set up a dedicated fintech unit.
With a young population of more than 100 million, the Philippines is one of the most exciting Asean markets for fintechs. Just 34% of Filipinos have bank accounts, according to the World Bank, which means fintechs can play a leading role in the government's financial inclusion efforts. The Philippines is setting up a digital national identity system which should boost credit access for the underbanked. Once registered, residents will be given a 12-digit PhilSys Number that will be used as a digital identity across different platforms. Authorities plan to sign up 7 million Filipinos in 2019 and an additional 20 million in 2020 once the formal application process starts. By 2023, the government expects to have completed registration for all Filipino citizens and resident aliens.
Malaysia may launch virtual banks by the third quarter of 2020 in a bid to boost its fledgling fintech sector and improve banking services for its people. Observers expect that the launch is imminent now that Bank Negara Malaysia has said that virtual banking license requirements will be announced by year-end.
Vietnam is one of Southeast Asia's most dynamic markets for fintech. It has a young, connected population, a fast-growing economy and millions of unbanked people. In 2017, just 40% of Vietnam's adults (defined as 15 years or older) had a bank account, according to the World Bank. Investment in Vietnam's fintech startups reached $117 million in 2018, according to startup accelerator program Topica Founder Institute.
China's UnionPay is stepping up European expansion in a bid to capture business from Chinese outbound tourism and corporate travel. The Chinese payments giant has established a partnership with Barclay's, which processes almost half of the UK's credit and debit card transactions, that will allow 110,000 UK merchants to accept UnionPay beginning from the summer of 2019.
India's fintech sector has surged over the past few years, with deal value reaching $2 billion in 2018. India now has more than 2,000 fintech startups, compared to less than 750 in 2014. Most Indian fintech startups are in the payments and lending segments, a boon for the subcontinent's under-banked population. Given the importance of fintech to financial inclusion in India, Delhi is preparing to launch a regulatory sandbox that would ensure that the industry develops stably. In late March, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Shaktikanta Das said that the RBI would publish the guidelines for the creation of a fintech regulatory sandbox in the next two months.
As one of Southeast Asia's preeminent markets, Indonesia offers strong opportunities for fintechs. With a population of 265 million, it is larger than Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia combined. In 2018, the Indonesian economy expanded 5.18%, beating economists' forecasts.
Thailand's Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has approved the kingdom's first initial coin offering portal (ICO) and is expected to issue guidelines for securities token offerings (STO) applications in the near future. ICO portals are used primarily to conduct due diligence.
In a few short years, Japan has become one of the most crypto-friendly countries in the world, pushing ahead with plans to integrate distributed ledger technology into its financial system despite rising skepticism about virtual currency's future. Even massive hacks of its crypto exchanges haven't affected Japan's determination to become a crypto nation. The Japanese government has handled the skullduggery in stride, strengthening systemic security measures rather than resorting to draconian crackdowns.
In less than a decade, Alibaba and Tencent have built the world's foremost mobile internet ecosystem in China. Their success derives from both innovative business models and unflappable determination. To be sure, they arrived at the right time - the rise of smartphones - but good timing isn't enough to prevail in a market as cutthroat as China's. Of course, Alibaba and Tencent also haven't had to contend with foreign competition. Would they have been as successful without the Great Firewall?
Vietnam plans to roll out a pilot peer-to-peer (P2P) lending scheme to boost financial inclusion in one of Southeast Asia's fastest growing economies. The pilot program will permit P2P lending firms to serve as intermediaries between lenders and borrowers, but they will be restricted from fundraising activity.
In Asia, digital wallets are increasingly where the money is for ride-hailing companies. Once they have a critical mass of customers using their app for taxis, the companies launch a suite of financial services people can access from the convenience of their smartphones. Didi Chuxing is going this route in China, while Singapore-based Grab and Indonesia-based Go-Jek are launching digital wallets across Southeast Asia.
Across Asia, there is a race to go cashless as financial digitalization accelerates. Financial services companies want to capture business from digital payment adoption, while regulators want to reduce costs by printing less paper money and minting fewer coins. Consumers want convenient payment options.