December was an eventful month for Australia's neobanks. Xinja's demise made waves, showing that it does not pay to keep building atop a flimsy foundation. Castles in the air must come down. And yet, some Aussie neobanks are thriving. Shortly after Xinja said it would turn in its banking license, Australian Financial Review reported that Judo Bank was set to raise up to AU$200 million from investors, bringing its valuation to AU$1.65 billion.
The Grab-Gojek rivalry is fast becoming the stuff of legend. Barring a merger, those two Southeast Asian decacorns are determined to one-up each other for evermore. The rivalry began with ride hailing and food delivery and has intensified in the fintech sector, the best hope for both firms to reach profitability and provide their deep-pocketed investors with an attractive exit. Following Grab leading a US$100 million funding round in Indonesian e-wallet LinkAja, Gojek spent US$160 million to increase its stake in PT Bank Jago to 22% from 4%. It is Gojek's largest investment yet in financial services.
In the twilight of 2020, warnings about shaky neobank business models often fall on deaf ears. For most neobanks and their investors, the prevailing business model remains growth first, ask questions later. Perhaps the abrupt collapse of Xinja, an erstwhile high-flying Australian neobank, will give others in the sector pause about their approach. Like most of its peers, Xinja telegraphed extreme confidence about its prospects. Right up until the end, Xinja was cool as a cucumber, assuring the public that a huge investment from Dubai-based investors was on the way. As it turns out, the cash is missing in action. And it is quite a sum.
Taiwan has had no shortage of opportunities to become a regional financial center. Most recently, Hong Kong's business environment declined markedly, prompting calls in Taipei to attract financial business from the former British colony. That will not happen though. Taiwan's regulatory environment is too restrictive. The business that leaves Hong Kong will instead go to Singapore and Tokyo.
Political uncertainty has dulled Hong Kong's edge as a global financial center. That much was clear long before Ant Group's IPO came to a screeching halt. The abortive Ant deal signaled that politics could shake Hong Kong's capital markets too. Still, Hong Kong's IPO market remains red hot - just not for fintechs anymore. As Hong Kong draws closer to China, it will assume the role of the country's offshore financial center. That will provide both Singapore and Japan with the chance to win some new business, which will be for the best. Asia is large enough to have multiple financial centers, each with a different role.
Revolut always thinks big, so it is no surprise that the UK neobank unicorn is now billing itself as a global financial super app. Revolut's CEO Nikolay Storonsky spoke about this topic at Singapore's recent Fintech Festival. It was hard not to see the irony there. While Revolut was talking about its super app dreams, Grab-Singtel, Sea Group and Ant Group were mulling how to best use their newly won Singapore digital bank licenses. Revolut was not even in the running for one. It dropped out of the race more than a year ago due to the stringent capitalization requirements.
Now that Singapore's digital banking race is over, the losers must shift gears. And there were far more failed than successful bids. Of the 14 applicants which made it to the final round, only four were awarded licenses. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) may issue a fifth license in the future, but none of the remaining 10 applicants will sit around waiting for that day. Instead, they will look for opportunities outside of Singapore.
Lufax is one of the few prominent Chinese fintechs that foresaw tighter regulation of online lenders, perhaps because the company began as a peer-to-peer lender. As Beijing in 2017 launched what would become a sustained campaign to eradicate the scandal-ridden P2P lending sector in China, Lufax moved to exit the industry. By 2019, Lufax had transformed from a P2P lender into an online provider of credit facilitation and wealth management services. It is thus no surprise that Lufax is weathering the current microlending crackdown well so far. The company's IPO went off without a hitch in New York, raising US$2.4 billion.
The Monetary of Authority of Singapore (MAS) set the bar high for aspiring digital banks to ensure that the licensees would be well capitalized and have a clear path to profitability. The stringent requirements ensured that defiant upstarts like the UK's Revolut opted out of the competition. In the end, the MAS awarded four licenses, two digital full bank (DFB) and two digital wholesale bank (DWB). There were few surprises. The winners were primarily big platform companies long considered leading candidates. The one exception was the consortium made up of Greenland Financial Holdings, Linklogis Hong Kong and Beijing Co-operative Equity Investment Fund Management, which was awarded a DWB license.
Three Chinese tech giants are competing for digital wholesale bank licenses (DWB) in Singapore: Ant Group, Xiaomi and ByteDance. Ant Group applied for the license alone, while Xiaomi (with AMTD) and ByteDance lead respective consortia. Prior to its abortive IPO, Ant had been widely considered one of the top candidates for a DWB. Ant's online banking experience far outstrips that of Xiaomi or ByteDance. However, China's crackdown on microlending could a deal a blow to Ant's prospects.
Kakao Bank is having an exceptional year, setting the stage for a blockbuster IPO in 2021. Kakao's third-quarter profit rose more than 700% year-on-year to 40.6 billion won (US$35.9 million). Through September, Kakao had recorded 85.9 billion won in profits, up more than 458% annually. The Seoul-based neobank attributed its outstanding third-quarter performance to additional interest income and its non-interest business swinging to profitability for the first time.
China's fintech boom was great while it lasted. The abortive Ant Group IPO heralded the end of that era. That's not to say that digital finance will fade away in China. Rather, the state will exert greater control over fintechs. Tighter regulations, similar to what incumbent banks face, will cut into fintechs' bottom lines and constrain their growth prospects. That does not augur well for Tencent, which counts fintech - through its WeChat Pay wallet and WeBank digital bank - as one of its core business groups. Bloomberg estimates that Tencent's fintech business was worth RMB 200 billion to RMB 300 billion before the Ant IPO was suspended.
Australian neobank Judo is weathering the pandemic-induced downturn better than many of its counterparts. The Melbourne-based neobank reached unicorn status in May as it raised an additional A$230 million and says it was profitable as of August. Judo expects to raise an additional A$200 million to A$300 million before the end of the year.
Sea Group is closing in on one of two Singapore digital full bank licenses (DFB). Although Sea's losses doubled in the third quarter to US$425.3 million, the company's revenue surged 99% to reach $1.21 billion. Instrumental to that brisk revenue growth is Shopee, which is fast becoming one of Southeast Asia's premier e-commerce platforms. The integration of e-commerce, digital finance (SeaMoney) and gaming (Garena) into a digital services ecosystem with broad reach should be a winning combination for Sea.
On November 2nd, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange held talks with Ant Group’s management executives, including its founder Jack Ma. The next day, regulators issued new draft rules to tighten China’s rapidly growing online microlending sector. Ant Group’s IPO in Shanghai and Hong Kong was subsequently suspended after Ant said there had been “material changes” in the regulatory stance on financial services, which could result in Ant failing to meet the conditions for listing and providing information disclosures.
After banks in Singapore were ensnared in the 1MDB scandal, Singaporean authorities stepped up their fight against financial crime. Having strict anti-fraud and anti-money laundering controls in place to fraud is essential for Singapore to strengthen its status as a global financial center for wealth management and major fintech hub. Yet some financial crime in the digital realm is posing new challenges to Singapore. The city-state's involvement in the Wirecard scandal is a case in point.
For digital banks, the pandemic is a double-edged sword. It is increasing demand for digital banking but revealing the fragility of the typical neobank business model. Many of the neobanks that couldn't make money in better times are now in varying degrees of financial trouble. Australia's Xinja finds itself in such a predicament. It needs to borrow a page out of the book of Revolut or N26 and secure another massive capital injection. That is proving to be easier said than done though. An investment of A$433 million led by Dubai-based World Investments Group (WIG) announced in March has yet to be confirmed.
All too often, the digital banking conversation focuses on retail customers. It makes for a good story, tech-savvy millennials doing all their banking from the convenience of a smartphone. And the promise of achieving massive scale is alluring. But in Singapore, the retail banking market will be a tough nut to crack. 98% of Singaporeans already have a bank account, while DBS, UOB and OCBC are well prepared for digital challengers. The less glamorous but more promising market opportunity for digital banks lies with small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Grab-Singtel consortium is in many ways the ideal candidate for a Singapore digital full bank license (DFB), which allows the holder to serve both retail and corporate clients. Both firms are based in the city-state but have a strong regional presence. Grab is Singapore's most prominent unicorn, Singtel its foremost telecoms firm, backed by Temasek. Joining forces, they could draw on large troves of user data to tailor digital banking services for a target demographic of millennials and SMEs. In Singapore, Singtel has 4.3 million subscribers.
South Korea's K bank has struggled since its inception in 2017. It lacks the super-sticky ecosystem and vast resources of its competitor Kakao Bank, which was set up at roughly the same time. In April 2019, K bank suspended most of its services amid fundraising difficulties. Although it resumed some services in July, K bank is still far from full strength. It has about 900 billion won in capital, compared to Kakao Bank's 1.8 trillion won. K bank will need to secure large capital injections in order to compete on an even footing with Kakao and Viva Republica's Toss Bank.
Revolut is one of Europe's biggest neobanks, but its ambitions are global. Pre-pandemic, Revolut planned to expand to a dizzying array of countries and territories. In September 2019, Revolut announced that within Asia-Pacific it would focus first on Singapore, Australia and Japan. Given its partnership with Visa, the UK neobank said it could later expand to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Cambodia has a costly money-laundering problem, both in fiscal and reputational terms. Effective October 1, the EU's revised list of third countries at high risk of money laundering came into effect. Cambodia was one of three newly listed East Asian countries along with Myanmar and Mongolia. Cambodia is also on FATF's money-laundering gray list. Being seen as a high money-laundering risk nation could complicate Cambodia's efforts to woo foreign investment amid the prolonged pandemic-induced downturn. The Cambodian economy is set to contract 4 to 5% this year.
The Malaysia digital banking race is taking shape as a growing number of non-financial firms signal their intention to apply for a digital bank license. Bank Negara Malaysia is expected to issue up to five licenses valid for conducting conventional or Islamic banking in the country. Per the Malaysian central bank's requirements, the new digital banks should focus on boosting financial inclusion primarily through digital means. Potential applicants include telecoms firms Axiata Group (which owns the e-wallet Boost) and Green Packet, ride-hailing giant Grab, gaming company Razer and conglomerate Sunway as well aas the Hong Kong-based financial group AMTD and the Malaysian bank AMMB.
Australia is struggling to win its fight against financial crime in part because its biggest banks cannot effectively contain money laundering. The bank themselves are rarely willing participants in illicit activity. Rather, ineffective money-laundering controls foment compliance weaknesses that criminals exploit.
Many Asian countries struggle to contain money laundering, which is usually perpetrated by non-state actors. North Korea is different. The North Korean state itself is deeply involved in money-laundering schemes, often in cahoots with Chinese entities, to help Pyongyang evade economic sanctions, access hard currency and fund North Korea's nuclear program. Confidential bank documents first reviewed by BuzzFeed News and part of the FinCEN files show just how successful North Korea continues to be in laundering large amounts of money through the global financial system.
In mid-September, Tencent opened a Singapore office that will serve as its regional hub, reflecting the Chinese tech giant's growing focus on Southeast Asia. Tencent aims to build a digital services ecosystem in the Asean countries that replicates the success it has achieved at home. Digital banking forms one cornerstone of that strategy, although less overtly than in the case of Tencent's rival Alibaba. Rather than applying for its own digital bank license in Singapore, like Ant Group, Tencent is instead relying on strategic stakes it has taken in internet companies, such as Singapore's own Sea.
Neobanks like to talk about disruption, but in Hong Kong, they're actually putting their money where their mouth is. Five of the eight virtual banks approved to operate in the former British colony have gone live: ZA Bank, Airstar, WeLab, Fusion Bank and Livi Bank. While none of them has a game-changing value proposition yet, their low fees, digital agility and high deposit rates (at least during a promotional period) are bound to attract customer interest. Their digital acumen is taking on new importance during the pandemic, which recently flared up in Hong Kong.
Grab isn't just Southeast Asia's most valuable startup: It's also the most ambitious. Grab aims to give digital banking pride of place in an ecosystem heretofore reliant on ride hailing and food delivery. The user base is there to make the digibanking gambit work, Grab says, pointing to its millions of passengers, drivers and food-delivery customers.
China's ByteDance is quietly deepening a push into fintech in Asia as the future of its U.S. operations hangs in the balance. ByteDance's popular short-form mobile video platform TikTok has become a major front in the U.S.-China technology war. Now more than ever, ByteDance needs to monetize its services. Fintech could be a way forward for the company, whose US$100 billion valuation makes it the world's most valuable startup in private markets.
Singapore may be the Lion City, but there's an elephant in the room when it comes to digital banking: Incumbents are readier than ever for the challengers. Singapore's Big Three of DBS, OCBC and UOB have been digitizing for years with varied degrees of success. The pandemic gave them an opportunity to fast track the process. After all, when retail branches are closed and everyone stays home, banking digitally becomes a necessity, not a convenience.
The pandemic didn't stop India's fintech investment from surging year-on-year in the first half of 2020. A new KPMG report shows that Indian fintechs raised US$1.7 billion from January to June, more than double the US$726.6 million during the same period a year ago. There were 70 deals in total.
The Taiwanese government recently announced its intention to transform Taiwan into a regional finance hub. Wealth management is an area of focus. One would think that the government would see a chance to simultaneously bolster fintech development in Taiwan, which has lagged compared to the other Asian tiger economies: Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. Yet the Taiwan government remains wary of disruption in the financial sector. As demonstrated in the Financial Supervisory Commission's (FSC) new three-year fintech roadmap, Taiwan remains committed to a cautious, prescriptive approach to fintech that prioritizes strengthening the digital capabilities of incumbents.
Gaming firm Razer is about as far from a bank as you can get. While it has a fintech arm, Razer's bread and butter lies in gaming hardware, software and services. Fintech, which refers primarily to payments in Razer's case, is a means for gamers to make in-game purchases. Razer sees a big opportunity though: Turn its many millennial gamers into banking customers. After all, they're already spending money digitally in the Razer ecosystem.
In addition to the digital full bank (DFB) license it has applied for in Singapore, Razer is also aiming to develop a larger international digital finance network. A logical first step would be to apply for a digital bank license in neighboring Malaysia, where Razer already has a strong presence. Malaysia is the only market besides Singapore where Razer's e-wallet Razer Pay is in wide use. Malaysia also recently signaled its willingness to apply more non-financial firms to apply for digital bank licenses.
Capital requirements for a Malaysia digital bank license are fairly stringent, with an absolute minimum of RM 100 million (US$23.7 million) necessary during an initial three to five-year period and later RM 300 million. As a listed company, Razer, however, could easily meet them. It has about US$500 million in cash on hand, according to an August statement.
Razer is also reportedly considering expanding its digital finance business to other Southeast Asian markets, India and Latin America.
Razer would not be the first gaming giant to become a digital banking juggernaut. Tencent has made that transformation, although it wasn't a straight shot from gaming to fintech. The WeChat messaging app played a paramount role.
Tencent-invested Sea is also trying to make the jump from gaming to banking, but unlike Razer, Sea has a large e-commerce business. That makes Sea's bid to support SMEs more convincing than if it were a gaming company alone. Sea already has many small businesses in its ecosystem, while Razer has primarily potential retail banking customers.
Sea and Razer have one thing in common though: Both are ascendant but still loss-making. Hong Kong-listed Razer posted a net loss of US$17.7 million ($24.2 million) from January to June, a 64% improvement over the US$47.7 million it lost a year earlier. Revenue rose 25% annually to US$447.5 million on the back of strong demand for its gaming products.
Razer's fintech business recorded US$1.8 billion in total payment volume in the first half of the year, up 114.3% year-on-year. The business grew briskly thanks to rapid customer acquisition, both on the merchant and consumer sides - rising digital entertainment consumption amid the pandemic helped drive growth in the latter market segment.
"The fundamentals of our business remain as solid as ever," Min-Liang Tan, co-founder and CEO of Razer, said in a statement. That, "coupled with our strong operating cost discipline and our strong cash position of over US$500 million, put us in good stead, even during times of challenging global economic conditions."
After a rocky 2019, South Korea's Toss has performed strongly thus far in 2020. Despite the pandemic, Toss broke even for the first time in April. In late August Toss's parent company Viva Republica announced it had raised US$173 million, bringing its total war chest to US$560 million and its valuation to US$2.6 billion. Investors in the fundraising round include Aspex Management, Kleiner Perkins Digital Growth Fund, Altos Ventures, Goodwater Capital, and Greyhound Capital. Toss will use the cash to support the next stage of its expansion.