Digital banking license fray – Analysis of Approach in the Regional Context

Obtaining a Singapore digital banking licence will help in demonstrating their track record and regional connectivity to other regulators in ASEAN, where digital banking will grow in the future,” says Ernst & Young’s Mittal. A “badge of trust from a regulator in Singapore” may help get investors, and potential partners on board more easily, he adds.

There are no guarantees, though, others argue.

“I don’t think by virtue of having a licence in one market it can get you another one,” the aforementioned financial markets analyst says. “It gives credibility, but it still needs appetite from local regulators. There is no fast track.”

Banking for business

Retail digital banking sounds appealing, but there’s keener interest in Singapore’s digital wholesale banking licence. No fewer than 14 applicants are competing for three licences and a chance to go after what may be more genuine market opportunities.

“Applicants could be looking to leverage their existing ecosystems, rich data pools, and technological capabilities to identify customer needs, deliver customised services seamlessly and manage risks,” says Wong Nai Seng, regulatory risk leader at professional services firm Deloitte, Southeast Asia.

While there isn’t a real apples-to-apples comparison for other digital wholesale banking licences in the region, this interest signals a rush to tap Southeast Asia’s business banking needs, especially with the SMEs. Unlike traditional banks, many of the applicants come from a position of strength because they work with SMEs through their core business.

For example, Sea’s e-commerce unit, Shopee, already has a strong business, claiming 11,000 merchants and over 300 million deliveries per quarter across Southeast Asia and Taiwan. These customers and merchants can be onboarded on Sea’s digital financial services if it builds a layer on top of Shopee, or even Garena, its games business. Indeed, an executive within Shopee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, likened its banking ambition to that of Paypal, the payment giant that grew out of e-commerce platform eBay.

There are no guarantees, though, others argue

“Investors believe in the story, and we can raise the $1 billion [required for a licence] in a heartbeat even though we are admittedly not profitable yet,” the executive says of Sea’s decision to lodge a solo bid.

Ant Financial, the only other solo bidder, has the same edge. It provides the Alipay payment service that sits in Alibaba’s e-commerce businesses for merchants and customers. Adding a layer of digital financial services would help it build a strong customer base from Alibaba’s Lazada and Aliexpress shopping services in Southeast Asia.

The digital wholesale banks are likely to get into corporate cash management as well as cross-border transactions, according to a report by integrated financial services provider CGS-CIMB.

Of the announced contenders for a digital wholesale banking licence, two already have or operate a digital bank: Ant Financial operates MyBank, a virtual bank in China; and the consortium of Hong Kong-based investment banking firm AMTD Group, peer-to-peer financing platform Funding Societies, and utility provider SP Group. The AMTD Group includes Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi, which jointly holds a virtual banking licence in Hong Kong.