The Philippines has not raced to go cashless. Efforts to digitize the financial system got underway nearly two decades ago, but have made limited inroads. Cash still accounts for 90% of transactions, according to the Better than Cash Alliance, and looked like it was going to remain dominant - until the pandemic. Within a few months, the payments landscape has changed dramatically in the Philippines, with digital payments emerging as a must-have.
It is not easy to stand out in India's crowded payments segment. Users are spoiled for choice. There's Google Pay, Walmart-backed PhonePe, Alibaba-backed Paytm, or Amazon Pay, and perhaps one day WhatsApp Pay - if Indian regulators ever let it operate in the subcontinent. In theory, the first payment provider that can build a super app that bundles together all the services users want in one place will be the biggest winner. But that has proven elusive. It might be enough to build the best digital financial services platform - and forget about the rest. Paytm's entry into the insurance sector follows this line of thought.
Airwallex is among a handful of fintech unicorns that have closed huge funding rounds in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. In April, Airwallex raised US$160 million from investors as its valuation climbed to US$1.8 billion. Airwallex was established in Australia in 2015 and while now headquartered in Hong Kong, is still considered an Australian fintech. The company has sought to capitalize on demand for cheaper cross-border payments services among SMEs in its home market, where the major banks are notorious for charging high foreign-exchange fees. Airwallex says that its machine-learning technology enables fast, inexpensive and transparent global payments.
Japan has been trying to digitize financial services for years, given the high costs of maintaining a cash-based economy and the need for convenient payment options during the upcoming Olympics. The government's"Cashless Vision" initiative that seeks to increase non-cash transactions to 40% by 2025 began back in 2018, well before the covid-induced cashless drive that's sweeping across Asia. Going cashless to promote hygiene would probably seem superfluous in Japan, a country already known for its exacting hygiene standards.
AMTD is stepping up efforts to build a regional fintech ecosystem in Southeast Asia and plans to take a controlling stake in Singapore's FOMO Pay, a payments solution provider. The FOMO Pay deal follows AMTD's recent acquisitions of the leading insurtech PolicyPal, and CapBridge, Singapore’s first regulated securities exchange for digital assets and private companies.
China's payments market is so big that U.S. credit-card giants reckon it's better to arrive late to the party than never. Although China's fintech giants Ant Group and Tencent control about 90% of the US$27 trillion payments market, the remaining 10%, at US$2.7 trillion, is not exactly chump change. Among the U.S.'s big three card companies, Amex is the first to have its clearing license approved for China. That first mover's advantage, coupled with cooperation with numerous local banks and payments firms, could give Amex an edge over Visa and Mastercard.
China and the U.S. have both invested big in Indian fintech. Google Pay is one of the most popular digital wallets in the country, along with Walmart-backed PhonePe and Alibaba-backed Paytm. Facebook recently invested in India's Jio in a bid to build the subcontinent's first super app. There's just one problem: Indian regulators are concerned that foreign companies may dominate India's fintech market. WhatsApp Pay has yet to receive approval to launch in the subcontinent, two years after applying for a payments license. At the same time, New Delhi is cracking down on Chinese apps and enhancing scrutiny of Chinese investment amid rising geopolitical tensions with Beijing.
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.