By now it's a familiar story: COVID-19 is driving cashless payments adoption in Southeast Asia. As one of the region's key economies and recipients of fintech investment, Vietnam is a market to watch. What's notable about Vietnam is that it's better poised for an economic recovery than almost any other country because of how well it has controlled the coronavirus pandemic. While the rest of the world was in recession, Vietnam's economy grew 0.36% in the second quarter, beating a 0.9% contraction forecast by economists surveyed by Bloomberg.
Ant Group, formerly Ant Financial, has big ambitions for Southeast Asia. By taking strategic stakes in ascendant fintech startups across the region, Ant hopes to gain a foothold in the region's most important economies and perhaps lay the foundation for a regional payments ecosystem. If Ant's bid for a Singapore digital wholesale bank license is successful, the Hangzhou-based company will be poised to serve SMEs in the city-state and could eventually expand to other key regional economies where the financial inclusion rate is lower.
Macau is the only place in China's territory where gambling is legal. Chinese regulators want all the gaming in one place where they can keep a watchful eye over it. That's why the regulators don't like online casinos. Those are much harder to monitor. Located offshore, primarily in Southeast Asia, they aren't subject to Chinese law, even though Beijing forbids its citizens from gambling online. For Chinese authorities, the primary concern is that Chinese people will use online casinos to circumvent China's strict capital controls, which limit overseas remittances to US$50,000 a year. In some cases, criminal activity is involved.
Southeast Asia's two most valuable tech startups are determined to reinvent themselves, transforming from ride-hailing giants into digital banks. Singapore's Grab is leading in every Southeast Asian market but one: Indonesia, which happens to be where its arch-rival Gojek is based. Having recently received investments from Facebook and PayPal, Gojek looks to have the edge in the region's largest economy. But Grab is determined to prevail there. That's why the Grab-backed digital wallet Ovo is reportedly planning to merge with Dana, which is backed by Chinese fintech giant Ant Financial. Together, Ovo and Dana might be able to give Gojek's fintech arm GoPay a run for its money.
Ant Financial has invested $73.5 million in Wave Money (Digital Money Myanmar), a mobile financial services firm that aims to boost financial inclusion in one of Asia's poorest countries. Per-capita GDP is just $1326 in Myanmar, according to the World Bank, and 75% of its 54.5 million people lack a bank account. Ant's investment in Wave follows the Chinese fintech giant's announcement last November that it was planning to raise $1 billion for a fund to invest in Asean and India-based mobile internet startups. Ant is reportedly keen to back more fintechs in those markets.
Chinese investment into Indian fintechs is set to slow following New Delhi's decision to restrict foreign investment from countries with which it shares a land border and more carefully scrutinize new portfolio investors from mainland China and Hong Kong. India's immediate reason to target foreign investment is to forestall opportunistic takeovers during the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected about 152,000 and caused more than 4,000 deaths in the subcontinent.
A unicorn cannot thrive on ride hailing alone. That's why Indonesia's Gojek is betting on fintech to bolster its fortunes. Its arch-rival Grab is taking a similar road. Starting with payments, the ride-hailing giants aim to transform themselves into bonafide financial services providers, monetizing customer data by using it to create different digital banking products. Despite the pandemic, Gojek managed to raise another US$1.2 billion in March to support its expansion efforts. Gojek then acquired the Indonesian payments startup Moka and established a tie-up with the fintech Pluang, which offers digital gold investments.
Tencent has paid US$300 million for a 5% stake in Australia's Afterpay in a bid to strengthen its global fintech services and expand into smart retail. Afterpay allows shoppers to pay in four installments for purchases online or in retail stores. It claims to have 7.3 million users globally.
Malaysia was gradually moving in a cashless direction long before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, forcing it into lockdown from mid-March until early May. The virus just may have accelerated Malaysia's cashless push though, as people out of necessity opted for contactless payments instead of those involving contact. Now, digital wallets are offering new incentives to consumers and merchants, while policymakers are tightening regulations around the use of cash. Malaysia's cashless vision appears to have gotten an unexpected boost from the pandemic.
Internet giants outside of China are trying to create a super app like WeChat, which users rely on widely to chat, buy goods on and offline, and bank. The payments application is the stickiest: Once WeChat became a preferred digital wallet, it had a captive audience for a much wider selection of banking services. For Facebook, which is shut out of China, India offers the chance to build a super app. There are more users of both Facebook and its messaging app WhatsApp in India than anywhere else on earth. Facebook has moved one step closer to that goal following its US$5.7 billion investment for a 9.9% stake in India's telecoms giant Jio, a subsidiary of the juggernaut Reliance Industries.
A growing number of global fintechs are eager to tap China's growing remittances business, the world's second largest after India. Given China's strict controls of money flows, the right local partner is important for gaining access to the market. Otherwise, regulatory hurdles are tough to surmount. In April, Singapore-based digital cross-border payments platform Nium announced it would partner with Geoswift, a counterpart headquartered in Hong Kong that specializes in clearing payments in and out of the Chinese mainland.
The economic downturn fomented by the coronavirus pandemic has been a rude awakening for cash-burning fintech startups. They and their backers are finding that there's a price to pay for championing breakneck growth over profitability. In contrast, fintechs with solid balance sheets, like London-based digital money transfer firm TransferWise (profitable for three years in a row), are poised to pursue targeted expansion. Tapping resilient demand for its cross-border payments services, TransferWise recently inked a partnership with China's Alipay and expanded to the United Arab Emirates.
Libra is the most visible profile prong of Facebook's fintech offensive, but it may not be the most important. Not for now, anyway. U.S. officials and regulators remain circumspect about Facebook's digital currency project. Facebook has a long way to go before it wins their trust. In Asia, Facebook has a seemingly simpler task: Roll out the digital wallet of WhatsApp to monetize its large regional user base, concentrated in India and Indonesia. That's proving to be difficult too though.
In every crisis, there are opportunities. While many investors are tightening their belts during the coronavirus pandemic, some are opening their wallets. Now is the time to double down on certain investments. Take Australia's Airwallex as an example. The Melbourne-based cross-border payments platform closed a mammoth US$160 million (A$250 million) funding round in April, bringing its valuation to US$1.8 billion from US$1 billion. Less than half of the capital was raised in January, according to Australian Financial Review. Airwallex managed to raise the rest amid the pandemic's surge.
Across Asia, the cashless drive had been gaining momentum long before COVID-19 broke out in late 2019. In less than a decade, China, the region's largest and the world's No. 2 economy, has transformed from a cash-dominant into a cash-light economy. Its neighbors have been following suit.
A 2019 McKinsey study found that digital payments in Asia are growing at a roughly 15% annual clip, more than 2.5 times the typical economic growth rate in the region. Overall, cashless payments have been underpinning the rise of digital banking across APAC.
Asia may be at an inflection point for cashless payments as the coronavirus rages globally and hygiene concerns about the use of physical currency are growing.
WeChat Pay has for several years been trying to develop its business outside of China. The first step is usually to partner with local merchants, making WeChat Pay available at points of sale where Chinese tourists shop. The second step is to target the local market. Thus far, WeChat has been more successful capturing Chinese tourists' wallet share overseas than in becoming a trusted local digital banking provider.
The novel coronavirus outbreak could slow WeChat Pay's global expansion considerably in the short term. Put simply, what happens if your international payments business primarily depends on Chinese tourists and suddenly there are none?
On March 26th, Chinese internet giant Tencent’s messaging app WeChat launched a test version of a virtual credit payment product called Fenfu (分付). Fenfu, which literally means "installment payment," allows users unable to get a credit card from a bank to spend money first and later pay it back with WeChat. There is no fee for using Fenfu, which is focused on offline consumption. The virtual credit payment product does not support WeChat transfer and red envelope function.
The leading enabler of digital commerce across the Middle East and Africa region, Network International, made an agreement with Tencent Holdings Limited in February 2020 that will enable millions of Chinese tourists to transact through Network International’s extensive UAE merchant network with their WeChat mobile wallets.
The largest merchant acquirer in the United Arab Emirates, Network will perform as a settlement partner or acquirer as well as solution provider in order to enable mobile-based transactions via WeChat Pay at points of sale as well as for online purchases.
The novel coronavirus outbreak has crimped business activity across China, bringing the world's second largest economy to a virtual standstill. Yet amidst those unprecedented conditions, China's fintech giants have been busy developing digital solutions to mitigate COVID-19's impact. Some of the solutions are aimed squarely at the consumer economy, while others support government efforts to track people's health status.
Cambodian and Thai regulators recently announced the launch of an interoperable payment QR code for use between Cambodia and Thailand. Cambodian tourists who visit Thailand may now use their mobile banking app to pay in Cambodian riel when shopping at stores that display a Thai QR Payment sign, while the same functionality will be extended to Thai tourists in Cambodia by Q3 this year.
A collaboration between the Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) and five Cambodian commercial banks, the interoperable QR code was developed upon domestic electronic transfer system PromptPay which runs on Vocalink infrastructure. ACLEDA Bank PCL, Cambodia Commercial Bank (CCB) and the Foreign Trade Bank of Cambodia (FTB) are sponsoring banks of the collaboration, which mean that other banks would be required to work with the three in order to provide the service.
The India digital payments market makes for a fascinating contrast to China's. Unlike China, India has allowed foreign tech giants to compete on a mostly level playing field against its homegrown firms. In fact, Chinese tech giants are strategic investors in some of those Indian fintechs. Competition in the surging Indian payments market - Credit Suisse reckons it will grow fivefold to US$1 trillion by 2023 - is fierce. Google Pay is the market leader followed by Walmart-backed PhonePe according to research firm Razorpay. India's own Softbank-backed Paytm has fallen behind. AmazonPay is also vying for market share.
Entering into this fray is WhatsApp Pay, the digital wallet of the global messaging giant. WhatsApp Pay is aiming to do what in India what WeChat did in China: Segue from chatting and photo sharing into digital banking on the back of a popular messaging app. The difference is that WhatsApp Pay has a lot more competition. The only major digital wallet WeChat faced was Alipay. Interestingly though, WhatsApp has about as many users in India - 400 million as WeChat had when it expanded into digital banking in 2014. Today, WeChat has more than 1 billion users, mostly in China.
Ant Financial's international expansion runs on two separate tracks. The first is a concerted push into emerging markets, especially in South Asia. In these countries, Ant is laying the groundwork to become a primary provider of digital financial services to the local market. In many cases, incumbents and digital infrastructure are both weak. Ant sees opportunities to leverage both its banking and technology acumen in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
It's a very different story in Western Europe. There, Ant is making gradual inroads. The Chinese fintech giant says it wants to serve the local market, but its products are designed for Chinese consumers and businesses. European incumbents, meanwhile, are often entrenched. There's no easy way around that. Growing in Western Europe through acquisitions in local companies makes more sense than going it alone. With that in mind, Ant recently took a minority stake in Swedish payments platform Klarna, the most valuable fintech startup in Europe alongside the UK's Revolut. Klarna is currently valued at US$5.5 billion and says that it has 80 million customers globally.
China's fintech giants have been quietly expanding in emerging markets that are participating in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to deepen Beijing's economic ties with the world. South Asia has become a geographic area of focus for Ant Financial's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Pay. Aside from India, major South Asian nations have few domestic digital payments options, and limited foreign fintech investment. They offer Alipay and WeChat Pay a chance to gain a first mover's advantage.
That's why WeChat Pay has been determined to enter Nepal. Of course, Chinese tourists do visit Nepal, which is known for its resplendent scenery, but in the long run that market is not as crucial as local consumers and small businesses. In early February, Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) approved WeChat Pay to operate in the South Asian country.
India fintech unicorn Paytm is shifting its focus to merchants in a bid to better compete with rivals Google Pay and Walmart-backed PhonePe. Paytm lags those two firms in its share of the transactions on India's state-backed real-time UPI payments system. As of October, UPI handled more than 50% of India's digital transactions, according to research firm Razorpay.
Credit Suisse reckons that India’s payments market could reach $1 trillion by 2023. Four or five major firms are likely to vie in India's payments market after consolidation, analysts say. A duopoly like Ant Financial-WeChat Pay in China is unlikely in the India market.
Reform is coming to China's US$27 trillion payments market belatedly. Very belatedly. U.S. credit-card giants have been trying to crack the market for years, to no avail. The market should have been open to them by 2006, per China's WTO commitments. But Beijing has hesitated to open its financial industry to foreign investment. It is finally signaling greater openness amidst the toughest business conditions China has faced in decades, perhaps since the beginning of economic reforms in 1978.
In mid-February, Mastercard announced it had received approval from the People's Bank of China (PBOC) to formally establish a bank-card clearing business in China. The green light for Mastercard comes three weeks after Beijing and Washington signed a phase-one trade deal to ease tensions in their strained economic relationship. American Express has also recently been granted approval to set up a bank-card clearing business in China. Both Mastercard and Amex are working with local Chinese partners in joint ventures.
India was one of the world's hottest fintech markets in 2019 with related venture-capital investment in the first half of the year reaching $286 million. Investors are especially keen on the payments segment, which an Assocham-PWC India study predicts will more than double to $135.2 billion in 2023 from $64.8 billion in 2019.
Japan is one of the few major economies in Asia with a strong preference for cash. About 80% of transactions in Japan are cash, compared to 40% in China and 11% in South Korea.
The fintech arms of Chinese internet giants Alibaba and Tencent have fought each other to a standstill in their home market. Together, Ant Financial (through its e-wallet Alipay) and WeChat Pay each hold about 90% of China's US$25 trillion mobile payments market, each with roughly an equal share. The duopoly looks stable for now.
The Indonesian central bank has approved WeChat Pay to operate in Southeast Asia's largest economy following a lengthy review period. WeChat Pay previously had been accepted at some Indonesian points of sale, but was not considered a legal form of payment. Bank Indonesia said in a statement that it granted WeChat Pay a permit to operate in the country on January 1. WeChat arrives as Indonesia introduces a nationwide standard QR payment system, Quick Response Indonesia Standard (QRIS). WeChat Pay will be accepted as a form of payment at merchants who support QRIS.
The private-equity unit of United Overseas Bank has co-led a US$31.2 million Series A funding round for the Thai fintech start-up Lightnet along with South Korea's Hanwha Investment and Securities and Japan's Seven Bank. Other investors included Singapore's Hopeshine Ventures, Signum Capital and Du Capital as well as Taiwan-based Uni-President Asset Holdings and Zhejiang-based HashKey Capital. Lightnet was co-founded by Chatchaval Jiaravanon, a member of the family that owns Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group, and Tridbodi Arunanondchai, a tech entrepreneur and former investment banker.
American Express has been trying to enter the China market since before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. As China's financial reform stalled, so did the US card giant's prospects in the world's largest consumer market. Now that Washington and Beijing have reached a phase-one trade deal, AmEx is finally poised to start doing business in China. In early January, shortly before the trade deal was signed, the People's Bank of China (PBOC) accepted AmEx's application to begin China operations.
Paytm is not just the most valuable Indian fintech firm: At US$16 billion, the digital payments company boasts the highest valuation of any Indian startup. It has long been considered a standout on the Indian fintech scene and counts Softbank and Ant Financial as its primary backers. Together, those two heavyweight investors own 60% of Paytm. In a recent interview with The Financial Times, Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar said, "We see ourselves on a healthy path."
Chinese investment in India has flourished over the past decade, reaching a $8 billion as of December 11, 2019, as compared to $200 million a decade earlier in 2009. A significant amount of that investment is coming from China’s two tech giants, Alibaba and Tencent, which have been aggressively investing in Indian start-ups. Many of these start-ups have crossed the $1 billion valuation threshold to become unicorns.
Alibaba and Ant Financial have invested resources in five unicorns out of the six companies they’ve invested in, while Tencent has done the same for seven out of twelve startups they’ve funded. This would mean that Alibaba and Tencent have invested in approximately half of the 31 unicorns in India, according to a report from Iron Pillar. A six-fold increase of Chinese investment in India was recorded between 2013 and 2014, coinciding with the strategic restructuring of Alipay to Ant Financial. Experts believe that a majority of Chinese capital in India come from Alibaba and Tencent, or its subsidiaries.
2019 was the year of the aspirational super app - aspirational because no platform has come anywhere near the dominance of China's WeChat. WeChat never branded itself as a super app. It simply became one thanks to a timely arrival, its appeal to Chinese users and lack of serious competition.
Rebranding a successful tech startup as a potential super app is a good way to keep the funding gravy train flowing. What could be more enticing to investors? Just ask the Southeast Asian ride-hailing giants Grab and Gojek. But China is a unique market, where users are happy to sacrifice choice for convenience and a frictionless experience. Elsewhere, notably India, users prefer different apps for different functions.