Once upon a time, before China’s tech crackdown began in earnest, Ant Group went on an overseas shopping spree, investing in a wide variety of up-and-coming fintechs. Though the company never stated the idea clearly, many observers assumed Ant was laying the groundwork for some kind of cross-border payments ecosystem in Asia – where it made the bulk of its investments. Things have not turned out that way (at least not yet), but some of Ant’s individual investments are proving to be winners, giving the company a strategic presence in some of the region’s most promising markets for digital financial services. Other investments, however, have not proven so successful.
Despite a slowdown in fintech funding amid a shaky global economy, Indonesian fintech remains a bright spot in the Asia-Pacific region. While the deal flow has tapered off somewhat from late 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, the second quarter still saw a few big-ticket deals.
What happens to airlines that fail to win digital banking licenses? In the case of Capital A, they have to count on a sharp rebound in travel demand to help revive their core business, which could eventually be better bundled with the AirAsia super app and various fintech services. However, Capital A continues to lose money as seen in its mixed first quarter results.
Fintech funding in Asia appears headed for a sharp slowdown amid an uncertain global economic outlook. However, Pakistan remains a bright spot in the region, benefiting from its extremely low baseline compared to the region’s other major emerging markets. Indeed, startup funding in Pakistan reached a record US$350 million in 2021, while in India it reached an all-time high of US$38.5 billion. In 2022, despite the shaky global economy, Pakistan may surpass last year’s record. As of May, Pakistani startups had already raised US$167 million.
The United States’ largest tech companies have a significant presence in most Asian markets, whether Microsoft in software, Google for search, Facebook as a social media platform or Amazon in e-commerce. However, most U.S. tech giants have largely yet to make much of an impact in Asia’s burgeoning fintech scene.
For several years, the Asia-Pacific region has been a hotbed of fintech funding. Despite, or perhaps because of the coronavirus pandemic, fintechs have had very little trouble raising cash. After all, when the whole economy is moving online, banking needs be digital too. However, shaky global economic and geopolitical conditions appear to be finally starting to weigh on Asia fintech funding, with the second quarter seeing a clear drop-off in big-ticket fundraising.
Sea Group’s share price has tanked over the past six months, falling 75% to roughly US$78. The company has underperformed in many respects, even in its profitable gaming unit Garena. As Garena’s growth slows, Sea will have even more trouble financing its unprofitable e-commerce and fintech units, unless the company finds a way to reduce costs. Yet it continues to expand aggressively in regions far from home, with Latin America a key area of focus.
Pakistan’s fintech sector has long been a sleeper. Investors are now awaking to the significant opportunities in a country with 100 million unbanked people (the third largest unbanked population in the world), growing smartphone penetration and internet connectivity, incumbents with a weak digital game, and government policies aimed at using digital financial technology to boost financial inclusion. With just 1% of Pakistan’s US$4 trillion in annual payments currently made digitally, the sky is the limit.
The honeymoon period is over for Southeast Asia’s platform companies, even the venerable Sea Group. While boasting a strong ecosystem Sea is still consistently losing money in two of its three divisions. Being bullish on Sea means believing that the profitable gaming arm Garena can carry Shopee and Sea Money indefinitely. Investors appear to be having their doubts, especially as Garena’s growth has slowed recently. Sea’s share price has fallen 63% in the past six months and 43% over the past year and is now trading at about US$127.
Pakistan is the largest nascent fintech market in Asia, with an unbanked population of 100 million. About 70% of the population lacks a bank account. In absolute numbers, there are more unbanked people in both India and Indonesia, but those markets have much more developed fintech ecosystems than Pakistan. The investors and firms that are able to get in on the ground floor in Pakistan and establish strong business models will be able to reap substantial rewards.
Long before the pandemic disrupted the world, Southeast Asia’s preeminent platform companies began integrating financial services into their apps for practical reasons. Their cash-burning core services, like e-commerce, ride hailing and food delivery, were failing to make money. Fintech was seen as the answer. Struggling airline AirAsia, now rebranded as Capital A, sees similar promise in digital financial services, but it still needs travel to recover for its digital services ecosystem to thrive.
Ant Group-backed Akulaku is one of the more promising fintech startups to emerge from Indonesia in recent years. In mid-February, Akulaku secured a US$100 million strategic investment from Thailand’s Siam Commercial Bank, which followed a US$125 million investment in 2021 co-led by Hong Kong’s Silverhorn Group. Akulaku is now valued at US$1.5 billion to US$2 billion.
Vietnam is one of the last major markets in the Asean region where fintech remains at a relatively nascent stage. The payments segment accounts for the lion’s share of fintech investment, a whopping 93% as of late 2021, according to Statista. There have been several key investments in that segment of late, as well one in retail investing.
China’s fintech apex was probably in the mid-2010s, before the crypto crackdown. Since then, it has been a long downhill ride. Investors finally figured that out this year amid a broader crackdown on the tech sector that has clipped the wings of the country’s largest fintechs. But China’s loss is turning out to be India’s gain as investors – including, ironically, Ant Group – pour money into the subcontinent’s fintechs like Paytm, whose record-breaking IPO in November raised US$2.5 billion.