After years of losing money, Paytm has turned things around in the past two years. A disappointing IPO on the eve of a long-overdue slowdown in inflated tech stocks and valuations was a wake-up call for the company to focus on profitability instead of growth in myriad verticals. In the June quarter, India’s most prominent fintech showed some promising signs, especially in terms of loan growth, but it also faces rising competition and lacks a banking license that would allow it to lend directly to customers.

The fragmentation of e-wallets in Asia poses a challenge for any company trying to build a payments rail that can work smoothly throughout the region. With the exception of China, where a duopoly of Alipay and Tenpay still prevails, most Asian countries have dozens, if not tens of dozens, of digital payment methods. This holds true for the richest countries in the region like Japan and Singapore, as well as developing nations in South and Southeast Asia. For this reason, we are carefully observing the progress of Ant Group’s Alipay+ initiative in the region to see if it can achieve a breakthrough.

In September 2021, Ascend Money became Thailand’s first fintech unicorn, achieving a US$1.5 billion following a US$150 million funding round. While we have learned to take fintech valuations with a few grains of salt, Ascend Money does have a strong ecosystem built on its TrueMoney wallet, which says it serves more than 50,000 users through its platform and 88,000 “agents.” The TrueMoney platform and the strategic investment that Ascend Money has from Ant Group could give it an edge as it expands internationally.

For an e-wallet competing against aggressive digital banks, GCash is more than holding its own. The Alibaba-backed company has achieved impressive scale in a competitive, fast-growing market: 81 million active users and 2.5 million merchants and social sellers as of May, and without burning an unacceptable amount of cash. What’s more, according to the company’s leadership, it became EBITDA profitable three years ahead of schedule. The company is now preparing for an IPO. It is just a question of when.

This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle

India’s United Payments Interface (UPI) real-time payments system has transformed how Indians make payments, allowing them to easily transfer money instantly from one bank account to another: from a customer to a business, or between individuals. Since its 2016 launch, UPI has amassed 300 million users and 500 million merchants in a population of 1.4 billion and been a decisive factor in India’s embrace of cashless payments given its ease of use and interoperability.

This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle

Taiwan’s e-commerce market has been growing steadily in recent years, buoyed by the pandemic-induced boom in online shopping but also due to rising trade ties between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Per a research report commissioned by Amazon, the B2C segment is forecast estimated to grow 9% annually from 2021 to 2025, reaching NT$683 billion (US$23.2 billion). Companies including Taiwan’s own PChome and Momo as well as Shopee and Rakuten are all keen to tap into related market opportunities.

There is usually good reason to be skeptical these days about a loss-making fintech with a sky-high valuation, but India’s PhonePe – valued at US$12 billion – could be an exception to the rule. The company has fought its way to the top of the subcontinent’s massive UPI payments rail, edging out Google Pay and Paytm, is gradually building out a comprehensive digital financial services ecosystem and continues to raise eyewatering sums from investors at a time when the easy money no longer flows.

Southeast Asia’s largest platform companies all reported second quarter earnings recently. Some results were better than others, but Sea Group, Grab and GoTo all continue to struggle with the fundamentals. The latter two companies are not profitable, while Sea’s performance underwhelmed investors.

Japan’s megabanks are not the only Japanese financial services companies keen on growing their fintech footprint. The SoftBank spinoff SBI Holdings is a digital focused conglomerate with a securities division, a digital bank that is reportedly Japan’s largest by deposits, an asset management arm, an insurance business and a venture capital arm.

In a rapidly digitizing world, many Asian countries are going cashless in order to create better, faster, and cheaper payment infrastructure. But should 100% cashless be the goal?

While cashless transactions offer clear benefits, significant barriers exist to achieving a completely cashless society. Infrastructure limitations, inadequate digital literacy, and disparities in access to technology hinder the widespread adoption of digital payments in many Asian countries. In addition, cultural preferences and the role of cash in informal economies are tough to dislodge.

Despite high expectations for China's digital currency, adoption of the e-CNY for retail payments in the country remains modest at best. A key issue, and one we have been discussing for several years now, is interoperability with the existing, very effective digital payments ecosystem. The e-CNY is unlikely to be more than a novelty unless it can be fully interoperable with Alipay and WeChat Pay.

Asean has a cross-border payments dream that is slowly moving closer to coming true. Despite the very real interoperability challenges, Southeast Asian countries nonetheless seem determined to build a payments rail of their own that can boost the use of local currencies – perhaps at the dollar’s expense – while speeding up transaction time, lowering transaction costs and strengthening connectivity among their respective financial systems. The latest countries to sign onto this project are the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

Just when it seemed Capital A had put aside its digital banking ambitions, the ever-ambitious airline/platform company announced its partnership with the Philippines’ ascendant online lender UnionDigital Bank. The tie-up between Capital A and UnionDigital Bank comes amid a growing travel recovery in Southeast Asia and strong demand for digital financial services in the Philippines.

Buy now, pay later (BNPL) has surged in Indonesia over the past few years, plugging a large lending gap and in many cases acting like a credit card in all but name. BNPL has grown so briskly in Indonesia that some analysts believe it will replace credit cards altogether.Perhaps not.

Australia-founded but Hong Kong-headquartered B2B payments sensation Airwallex has had a busy 2023 thus far. Not only did it just inject US$165 million into its Singapore entity, it also secured a China payments license in March and inked a partnership with American Express in January that will allow its clients in Australia, the UK, Singapore, and Hong Kong to accept Amex cards as a payment method option. It all seems to add up to an Asia-centric growth strategy that is less grandiose than what the Financial Times described in 2020 as the company wanting to “upend the global payments system.”

Japan’s cashless journey is unique in Asia. While most countries in the region that have accelerated cashless payments in recent years are seeking to simultaneously boost financial inclusion, Japan is one of Asia’s best banked countries, with more than 95% of its adult population having a bank account. For Japan, going cashless is not about increasing participation in the formal financial system, but rather about reducing cash-related costs, as well as bringing the country’s technological prowess to financial services and increasing competition in the financial sector.

In the mid-2010s, the fintech business of Tencent grew exponentially, with WeChat Pay and its offshoots allowing the company to become a viable competitor to Alipay in China. Yet even as Tencent captured close to half of China’s payments market, and established a digital bank, WeBank, that could rival Ant Group’s MYbank, it never displayed the same kind of appetite for global expansion as Jack Ma’s company.

Paytm seems to have found the secret sauce at last. After years of rolling out seemingly unrelated digital financial services, the Indian fintech giant is instead focusing on lending and seeing its revenue rise accordingly. In the first quarter of the 2024 fiscal year, Paytm’s revenue rose 39% year-on-year to 23.42 billion Indian rupees (US$286 million). The company reported an operating profit for a third straight quarter, despite higher employee expenses and no government incentives, while its net loss narrowed to 3.57 billion rupees.

One has to give Ant Group credit: Despite the bruising tech crackdown it has endured at home, it has not given up on its vision of creating a regional payments ecosystem. In fact, Ant arguably had the idea to link up the disparate markets of Southeast Asia via a proprietary digital payments network even before different countries in the region began to set up their own bilateral rails using QR codes.

GCash is by several measures the most successful e-wallet in the Philippines. There is no question it has a massive user base – 81 million active users and 2.5 million merchants and social sellers as of May. What’s more, according to the company’s leadership, it became EBITDA profitable three years ahead of schedule, though it has declined to be more specific than that. While the global economic environment is not optimal for an IPO, GCash itself is doing well enough that it can probably afford to go ahead with the listing before year-end.

In recent years, the biggest credit story in India has been buy now, pay later, sometimes abbreviated as BNPL. Tremendous demand for credit has driven the BNPL boom in the subcontinent, but tighter regulation and slower growth are both now inevitable. As BNPL slows in India, there is an opportunity for the overlooked – but better regulated and steadily growing – credit card segment to build market share. To be sure, credit cards remain more of a premium product in India now than BNPL and the market is significantly smaller than for installment payments. Still, it is not small given India’s overall market size.

Patience is a virtue, and good things come to those who wait? Or so it seems in the case of Paytm, India’s most prominent fintech, once best known for looking like yet another questionable bet by Masayoshi Son, but now reminding us he knows how to pick winners after all. Paytm stumbled out of the gates of its November 2021 IPO, but since then has gradually improved its core metrics and has had a pretty good 2023. The company’s stock is up 67% this year; it has a booming lending business and may be profitable sooner than expected.

For the longest time, the China payments market was an oligopoly of the privileged three: first the state-owned UnionPay, and then as the country transitioned to mobile payments, Alipay and Tenpay. U.S. card giants like Visa, Mastercard, and American Express as well as PayPal could only look on with envy and frustration as Beijing kicked the can down the road on boosting market access – which was supposed to have been complete by 2006 per the conditions it agreed to upon accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

The paramountcy of the SWIFT interbank messaging network to cross-border payments can be measured in many ways, and SWIFT itself likes to do so with its data on transaction numbers and amounts. For instance, as of December 2022, Swift had recorded an average of 44.8 million FIN messages (payments and securities transactions) per day during the year, a year on year rise of 6.6%.

Raising money is not nearly as easy it used to be for fintechs, but that has not stopped PhonePe. India’s Walmart-owned payments fintech giant just raised another US$100 million from private equity firm General Atlantic as it races towards a US$1 billion fundraising goal.  PhonePe is arguably the most prominent Indian fintech unicorn that has yet go public, with a valuation of US$12 billion, massive transaction volume and a commanding presence on the ubiquitous United Payments Interface (UPI) payments rail.

Across Asia’s emerging markets, earned wage access (EWA) has been gaining traction rapidly in the past two years. In a nutshell, EWA platforms allow employees of a company to access a portion of their earned pay before payday. EWA is catching on fast in some of Southeast Asia’s largest emerging markets where per-capita GDP remains relatively low and significant portions of the population are either unbanked or underbanked.

This commentary was written in collaboration with Banking Circle

The majority of cross-border payments are currently carried out via telegraphic transfers supported by SWIFT’s network of correspondent banks. These transfers are often criticized for being slow and expensive. A transfer can take several days to complete, while the World Bank estimates the average cost of a transaction to be about 6% of the transfer value.

It’s all about financial inclusion: That’s why buy now, pay later (BNPL) is continuing to grow briskly in Indonesia, why regulators are maintaining a light touch, why venture capitalists and others keep pouring money into the country’s BNPL firms. Indonesia has an unbanked population of 181 million that is larger than the populations of most countries and many more underbanked people. Interest-free (if you pay on time) installment payments seamlessly integrated into e-wallets could become a dominant form of de facto credit in the country.

It is no exaggeration to say that India’s United Payments Interface (UPI) real-time payments system has been a game changer for the subcontinent. In a nutshell, UPI has transformed how Indians make payments, allowing them for the first time to easily transfer money instantly from one bank account to another: from a customer to a business, or between individuals.

In the roughly seven years since it was launched, UPI has accrued 260 million users in a population of 1.4 billion and been a decisive factor in India’s embrace of cashless payments thanks to its ease of use and interoperability. Mastercard’s 2022 New Payments Index found that Indians are the most willing of any consumers in the Asia-Pacific region to use emerging cashless payment methods with 93% likely to have made such a payment in the past year.

While many fintech success stories have come entirely from the private sector, state-backed UPI shows that public-private digital financial inclusion efforts can bear fruit when they are implemented well. Having achieved dominance at home, UPI now has set its sights on global expansion.

The question is: Can what works for digital payments in India work globally?

The largest U.S. payments firms have had their eyes on the China market for decades, in some cases since the country kicked off economic reforms in 1978. They have waited with the utmost patience to gain access to the colossal Chinese payments and cards market, valued at US$21 trillion in 2021 by research firm Global Data. In recent years, American Express and PayPal have made some incremental progress in the China market as Beijing has gradually permitted more foreign investment in its payments sector.

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