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Korea’s fintech scene growing fast: C.S.

A Credit Suisse report highlights activity in fintech by internet companies, startups and banks.

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Customer demand, regulatory support and advancing technology are fuelling a boom in fintech in Korea, according to an equity research report by Credit Suisse.

Fintech is part of a broader trend in tech startups and unicorns (startups valued at $1 billion or more), of which there are now eight in Korea, according to the August 29 report, written by lead analyst Park Jeehoon.

Biotech and retail services are the hottest areas winning the most investment. But fintech investment is also thriving, especially in payments, crowdfunding, and virtual banking.

Today there are more than 9 million daily users of mobile banking services in Korea, about double the number from 2013. Even more striking: 90% of banking transactions in Korea are today made online.

Show me the money

This helps explain the ongoing flood of money going into the country’s startup scene.

The Korea Venture Capital Association says startups received W3.4 trillion of investments in 2018 and are on track to receive W4 trillion this year. In the first half of 2019, 826 startups received investment, up 16.3% year on year (there are now over 300 fintech startups in Korea). Funding for startups is also shifting from mainly early stage to also include growth-phase companies.

Within fintech, payments and money transfer account for 32% of investment (see chart, main image); ‘techfin’, that is investments from internet companies like Kakao and Naver, is 25%; lending and credit startups are getting 24% of the money; digital wealth 16% and insurtech 3%.

Korea’s fintech leaders

Credit Suisse cites several fintechs as new standardbearers for Korea. The biggest startup in terms of valuation is the unicorn Viva Republica, whose backers include PayPal and Altos Capital. Valued today at W2.7 trillion, the 2013-vintage company operates a popular financial platform app called TOSS.

Others include Wadiz, a crowdfunding platform that provides seeding solutions for startups and new business ventures; and insurtech Bomapp, supported by conglomerate Lotte Group and KB Financial.

The leading banks have also teamed up to jointly fund Honest Fund, a digital wealth and lending platform; its shareholders include KB Investment, Hanwha Investment, and Shinhan Capital, a Who’s Who of Korean private-sector banking.

Just as notable, Korea’s traditional banks are also busy with their own fintech initiatives.

Hana Financial is setting up a globally integrated platform based on blockchain; Shinhan is operating a mobile financial service that combines banking, insurance and wealth management; and Nonghyup Financial is the market leader in open banking, using APIs to connect with affiliates and third-party companies to share customer data (on customer request).

Regulatory support

Oddly, the Credit Suisse report omits analysis of the hugely successful Kakao Bank or its fellow virtual bank, K-Bank (our story on VBs touted Kakao as the most important model for incoming VBs in Hong Kong and Singapore). It does list out the 33 tech investments made by internet parent Kakao into startups, from payments to crypto to gaming and healthcare.

But it does mention that the regulators in Korea are preparing to license a third virtual bank in 2020.

This is just one aspect of how regulators in Seoul have supported fintech, and why it continues to attract new players and financial backing.

The Financial Services Commission has taken steps over the past several years to support innovation. It has eased regulation on how firms authenticate customers, legalized crowdfunding and virtual banking (aka neo-banking), and blessed a blockchain-based authentication platform called BankSign.

This year, in April, the FSC launched a fintech sandbox giving companies a four-year forgiveness period to test new products. This coming month, it will set tougher mandates for open banking, to be followed next year with the debut of “MyData”, requiring open APIs between banks and fintechs to provide new financial services based on customer personal data.

Perspectives

Toyota and the origins of innovation

A visit to Toyota’s museum in Japan sheds some useful light on fintech.

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Toyoda's circular loom

Last week I spent a week of holiday in Japan, during which time I visited a museum located just outside of Nagoya dedicated to Toyota’s history. It’s excellent, so do visit if you get the chance; and it also got me thinking about innovation.

Fintech is supposed to be driven by innovation; DigFin’s mission is to chronicle the impact of the Information Revolution on finance.

Fintech is, by itself, not that sophisticated: it depends on more foundational innovations in computing power, data analytics, computer networking and connectivity. Fintech applies these in novel ways to address shortcomings, pain points and vulnerable margins in financial services. It has the potential to transform money itself.

Because fintech is now completely digital in nature, the way people in the industry think about “innovation” is based on the Silicon Valley paradigm: disruptive, decentralized, agile –“move fast and break things”; or by China’s recent experience, which relies on scale, relentless iteration, and aggressive ‘platforming’ so that a technology developed for a consumer in one field is deployed to other activities.

But is the digital experience the only relevant one? No, especially not to companies with ambitions to truly transform finance – companies whose founders believe they are creating businesses that will endure long after they’re gone – businesses that will come to define the 21stcentury.

Toyota’s legacy

Toyota Motors is a company that defines the 20thcentury. It’s the world’s third-largest carmaker, and the sixth biggest company worldwide in terms of revenues. It employs nearly 365,000 employees and claims the largest market cap in Japan. Today, in its 93rdyear, Toyota Motors is also the global leader in hybrid electric vehicles.

The first display to greet you in its company museum is a giant circular cotton loom (main image). But wait, you say – a cotton loom? I thought we were here for automobiles!

The company’s origins are in Toyoda Automatic Weaving Mill, founded by Sakichi Toyoda in 1911. The company was something of an outsider, Toyoda the unknown son of a carpenter.

Japan had already began headlong modernization following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, but this was led by family-owned conglomerates such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi that controlled banks, monopolized particular industries, and enjoyed cozy government and military ties. Sakichi, lacking such connections, therefore had to beat these incumbents with superior technology. He would go on to become Japan’s preeminent industrialist.

He ultimately patented around 50 inventions, but the most important was his circular loom. This was not just because of the physical technology, although that too is impressive. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 18thcentury Britain, inventions such as the Spinning Jenny had mechanized sending a shuttlecock back and forth to spin thread. Sakichi’s loom took this two-dimensional concept and made it 3-D in the shape of a circle, which allowed for continuous weaving while requiring far less energy.

Toyoda initially developed coarse fabrics for the low end of the market. Sakichi avoided competing against the incumbents, whose mills produced fine textiles. This was an early example of disruption by using tech to make it economic to meet the needs of the underserved. While the big conglomerates relied on their status and government ties, Sakichi kept iterating until he had developed a loom so good that could overtake the big players.

Innovation the Toyoda way

Key to the many moving parts of this loom were mechanisms to automatically stop the machine whenever a problem occurred. Sakichi promoted an idea of the ‘five whys’, which gave his workers a template to understand the cause of errors and figure out a way to resolve them.

This was a precursor to Toyota Motors’ famous “just in time” processing, as well as the foundation of today’s lean methodologies. Japan lacks natural resources, and therefore Sakichi obsessed on ways to improve productivity and achieve high quality without waste. What followed was a philosophy of getting to the core of “value”, what a customer would be willing to pay for, and discarding the rest.

So all of those Steve Jobs, Eric Reis and Jack Ma bromides about being lean, agile, and customer-focused owe a great debt to Sakichi Toyoda and the early Japanese textile industry.

Sakichi put these into words. His circular loom was invented in “the spirit of being studious and creative”, and dedicated to “the importance of making things”. Furthermore: “No creative thing should be put on the market unless fully proved in the commercial trial.”

The mission statement, then and now

Later on the company would develop five precepts, what today we’d call a mission statement. They are:

  • Always be faithful to your duties, thereby contributing to the company and to the overall good;
  • Always be studious and creative, striving to stay ahead of the times;
  • Always be practical and avoid frivolousness;
  • Always strive to build a homelike atmosphere at work that is warm and friendly;
  • Always have respect for God, and remember to be grateful at all times.

What’s notable is that the company’s philosophy was not “customer first”. Rather the combination of these tenets is what leads to products and services that delight consumers. 

This package of attitudes is about a million miles away from Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” philosophy, but it’s also far more grounded than Facebook’s official mission statement (“to bring the world closer together”) and other generic bumf common to Big Tech companies (to say nothing of WeWork’s execrable “elevating the world’s consciousness”).

Toyoda also assumed a patriarchal attitude toward employees. The company took care of its people: during the Great Depression, it used some funding proceeds to help workers in financial distress; these were the early days of lifetime employment.

The company’s philosophy also differs somewhat from today’s Big Tech ethos in Toyota’s emphasis on relentless testing before putting a product into the marketplace. Being agile is great, but launching a consumer app is just as complex and fraught as introducing a car. The rush to be first to market has, I suspect, ended in more failures than successes.

To realize its ambitions in making cars, the company set up its own steel-making business.

Today, tech companies have a lot more leeway to test and learn from apps already in the wild, while banks’ traditional slow path of testing is now lampooned. And times have changed: what worked for Sakichi isn’t always going to work today. But the company he built is more than 90 years old and still relevant.

From textiles to cars

The company’s move into automobiles germinated in the early 1920s with Sakichi’s son, Kiichiro, who toured the U.S. and Europe and was amazed by the popularity of cars – and impressed by what this said about Western levels of industry and wealth. Kiichiro had grown up among his father’s textile machinery. He went to university to study mechanical engineering, although it would be the friendships he made – later a business network – that would be just as important.

Kiichiro saw the need for a Japanese carmaker, but the big incumbent conglomerates and their government friends didn’t: modernization had been built on rail and shipping.

Kiichiro got his chance when an earthquake in 1923 leveled most of Japan’s infrastructure, while the handful of cars and buses played a critical role in recovery. Then Ford and General Motors set up plants in Japan. With his father’s blessing, Kiichiro began a secret R&D project, importing key machines for textiles that he could adapt to cars. He then negotiated the sale of the circular loom rights to a British manufacturer and used the proceeds to invest in R&D for automobiles.

Textile technology led to designing car seats and airbags

Many of the technologies invented by Sakichi for textiles proved adaptable to cars (such as seats and airbags), although Kiichiro also invested in an in-house capability for steel, to make parts. They also reverse-engineered American cars. The goal was to figure out how to make good-quality vehicles at lower cost than American imports, but without having to rely on volume. Japan was never going to match America for scale.

So once again, Toyoda found itself relying on technology to take on powerful incumbents. And again, the tech it deployed was a combination of engineering marvels and superior organization, with Toyota Motors (spun off as its own company in 1937) now giving name to its “just in time” operations.

Disruption!

To produce “just in time” meant, first, empowering the workers along its assembly line to stop production when confronted with errors, in order to prevent having to make costly fixes later. Secondly it meant extending the concept upstream to Toyota’s suppliers, and downstream to its bespoke dealership network.

This combination of innovations enabled Toyota to surpass the incumbent conglomerates and become Japan’s most important company, and then to beat the Americans. By the 1970s, Japanese cars were outselling American ones. In a panic, American companies strove to understand why they were getting outgunned by a competitor that just a short while ago was producing crappy, bottom-market tin.

G.M. and Ford eventually survived by adopting “just in time” operations, a trend that has since extended throughout the world of logistics, manufacturing, transport – and is now reaching consumer finance, through notions such as data-driven personalization.

Toyota manufacturing today

Toyota helped pioneer a lot in the world of disruptive tech that we so admire, or fear, today: finding an underserved niche, using technology to make it profitable to serve, and then leveraging that learning and agility to overtake incumbents in core markets.

Toyota also led the way in adapting frameworks developed for one industry (textiles) and deploying them elsewhere (cars) – an industrial precursor to, say, Alibaba’s ability to dominate seemingly unrelated sectors.

It did so by taking care of workers, which in Toyoda’s day meant empowering them to make decisions on the assembly line, and helping them through difficult times. Just-in-time techniques allowed huge productivity gains in assembly but required workers to be well trained and rewarded for loyalty. And the supply chains and dealerships created in Toyota’s wake were major employers as well. The lifetime employment culture has created its own problems in Japan today, but at least industry was adding more jobs than it was displacing.

It’s up for debate whether fintech will have the same beneficial impact, but I’d wager that banks or fintech founders that want to be around for generations, rather than until the first business exit, should be thinking about this. A trip to the Toyota commemorative museum in Nagoya may not be a bad place to start.

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Perspectives

Review: “The Future of Finance”

The new textbook by Henri Arslanian and Fabrice Fischer needs pairing with more traditional learning.

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The Future of Finance: The Impact of Fintech, AI and Crypto on Financial Services is a consultant-academic-banker-founder-cheerleader mashup to help people make sense of technology’s impact on financial services.

Its co-authors are Henri Arslanian, head of fintech and crypto consulting for Asia at PwC, and Fabrice Fischer, former CFO of A.I. shop Sentient Technologies and now founder of blu, an artificial-intelligence consultancy.

They are both entrepreneurial people who have built their careers in Asia but with a global reach. It’s good to have a textbook with that DNA at its core.

That’s primarily what FoF is, a textbook. It seems aimed at two audiences. The first is students. Universities around the world, and certainly in Asia Pacific, are inventing fintech-oriented curriculums, trying to marry their traditional computer-science or tech departments with business schools.

By “student” I also include people who need to study enough of fintech to “get it” but who may not be directly employed at a tech company – such as journalists, PR and marketing pros, and headhunters. The next junior reporter or salesperson I employ will read, and learn from, this book.

But FoF has its limits. Take the university student. Personally I’m skeptical about a full-blooded fintech degree. How many fintech companies fail because they don’t understand the complexities of financial services? That’s not a problem the authors of this book can solve…but they face the same problem. FoF offers a very good overview of fintech, crypto and AI, and if deployed on top of a deeper dive into finance, it’s useful. But it’s a supplement; students (or journos, etc) treating fintech-related trends as paramount are ill-served without a better understanding of the legacy systems and histories being challenged.

But for students studying things like accounting, business management, and finance, and who want a fintech layer on top, FoF will be useful and probably enjoyable. The writing is clear, not too heavy, and can rise to the challenge of chapters such as “The Basics of Cryptography and Encryption”.

The second audience for this book is people in financial services looking to get to grips with tech developments. Here the book serves a different role, filling in some gaps and helping tie together the bigger trends. The early chapters do a good job of building this context.

The book’s section on explaining crypto-assets is probably its biggest strength: the authors devote considerable time exploring the subject. For people leaving banking for the exciting world of crypto or blockchain, it’s a quick primer. Furthermore, this topic is actually hard for people who are not programmers or techies (that is, most of us). FoF provides a useful explainer that I intend to keep on hand.

Other sections, however, are too generic for practitioners. The section on fintech fundamentals is skimmable; any regular reader of DigFin will be very familiar with these topics. And the section on A.I. is disappointing. Its two chapters are comprehensive in that they define types of A.I. and touch on applications, but shallow.

The challenge for the authors, I suspect, is that a lot of A.I. work in finance is actually quite boring. But it’s also increasingly important. Unfortunately this book’s treatment of A.I. is too superficial to train a future data scientist, but also unlikely to help a future business executive understand the decisions they will face.

I think the A.I. section could have been livened up by providing several case studies to demonstrate how hedge funds, corporate banks, consumer banks, and insurers are actually using the tech and its variants, its successes and failures, and where it’s headed. I’m back to the argument that studying “fintech” (like studying journalism) is actually kind of useless without an underlying domain knowledge.

FoF ends well with a few speculative scenarios that pull together possible futures in which data, A.I. and blockchain technologies are intertwined. This part of the book is the most fun and I won’t ruin it with spoilers.

To sum up: FoF is helpful and welcome. It will serve as a useful starting point for students interested in the field, and can help bring finance professionals up to speed if they haven’t been exposed to these trends. It gets high marks for educating readers on crypto and blockchain, but the section on A.I. falls flat, and the description of generic fintech developments feels cookie-cutter. Ultimately this sort of textbook is like a glass of wine: best paired with a fuller menu of financial history, corporate finance, and accounting.

The Future of Finance by Henri Arslanian and Fabrice Fischer, Palmgrave Macmillan: Cham, Switzerland, 2019, 312 pages.

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Banking & Payments

Asia’s virtual banks need to redefine “MVP”

Shift from thinking about a minimum viable product to a minimum viable package.

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Photo: Ramon Salinero on Unsplashed
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The launch of virtual banks in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan is the most exciting story in fintech, anywhere. Only in these cities will massive internet companies – Alibaba, LINE, Rakuten, Tencent – and large domestic telecoms players square off directly against global banks.

Same license, same capital, same compliance rules, same everything – except the VBs won’t have any physical presence.

Many people in the industry, both among VB backers and incumbent banks, are looking to the U.K. and Continental Europe to understand what may await us in Asia. The likes of N26, Monzo, Revolut and Starling Bank have been in action for years now, successfully winning audiences and wallet.

But the European model, if followed too closely, risks failure in Asia, for two reasons.

Europe v. Asia: the MVP

First, in Europe, challenger –- or neo-banks, as they’re called – got started by being really, really good at one thing, like commission-free foreign-exchange trades, or deposit accounts for millennials. Gradually they added new services. But today none is comprehensive and often lack even basic things like a current (checking) account. Although Asia’s licensed VBs have not revealed their business plans, it is likely that most of them will do the same. If nothing else, the sheer challenge of launching a bank at speed may force VBs to focus on one selling point, on getting to market with a MVP, or minimum viable product.

Regulators, particularly in Singapore and Taiwan, have designed VB licenses to avoid direct competition with traditional banks. In all three markets, the aim of the authorities is for these new banks to meet the needs of underserved consumers and small businesses. So a narrow focus is expected.

But a narrow focus may not work. First of all, the capital requirements in Hong Kong and Singapore are on par with those of traditional banks’. In Europe, neo-banks operated as money operators and graduated to fuller licenses, but Asia’s VBs need to produce returns to match the capital required. That suggests they cannot remain focused on something niche for very long.

Second of all, the narrow approach implies that consumers will be cool with portioning their patronage: using Bank A for, say, primary deposits, Bank B for cross-border transfers, and Bank C for forex trading or a loan.

But in what world to people really want to fragment their financial experience? Especially when traditional banks can offer the whole caboodle online already? Convenience is supposed to be the VB’s ace up the sleeve, but asking consumers to operate across multiple apps is the opposite of convenient.

Moreover, Asian banks have had time to get some of their digital houses in order, in a way British and German banks could not. UOB’s digital bank in Thailand, for example, debuted with all the basic services bundled in. The bar is clearly higher in Asia. This is why European fintechs like Revolut have delayed their Singapore debut: they need to add more stuff to be relevant.

Therefore Asian VBs are going to have to be a lot more comprehensive a lot sooner: instead of launching a minimum viable product, they will need to launch a minimum viable package.

Open banking

The second difference between the European and the Asian experience is the open- or smart-banking environment is different from place to place. This includes banks’ embrace of open-API standards and the regulation to give this teeth; the existence or not of national digital identity programs; and how local regulations handle data, especially as it pertains to cloud computing and using or storing data overseas.

For this reason, virtual banking is as much a test of a market’s open-banking regime as it is a competition among houses.

This makes it difficult for Asia’s aspiring VBs to blueprint their business models. Open banking is all about allowing tech companies to acquire data from consumer-facing banks and ecosystem partners. Where there’s a government digital identity scheme, some things like e-KYC become easy – if the institution, the customer, and any third parties are all locally domiciled. It gets confusing when borders come into play.

Europe has longer experience with open APIs, but even there rules around gauging customer consent, and how to treat their data, are not understood.

So there are a lot of unknowns around data, and VBs will be testing the limits of what’s kopasetic and what’s commercially necessary. Given there are eight VBs in Hong Kong alone, differentiation could be one area of opportunity and business risk.

Another variable is to what extent open banking rules promote or require compatibility. Bank customers can readily transfer money from an account with, say, DBS to one at Bank of China. But to date that hasn’t been the case among e-wallet providers.

Open banking rules are supposed to enable compatibility, and so far there has been some attention paid to how readily banks are enabling transfers to e-wallets…but to date, no e-wallet ecosystem talks to another.

Execution

If VBs must launch a minimum viable package, how are they to gain a toehold and compete? They will be relying on nimbleness to compensate for a lack of breadth. These will be banks run completely on cloud, attempting to engage with customers socially, with databases built around customers rather than products, and a light tech stack that will make it easy to iterate and pivot.

Solutions will vary. The region is short of engineering and cyber-security talent. A traditional bank IT overhaul takes a year to build and test, whereas Asian VBs have six to nine months to build their businesses from scratch. Some may try to cut corners in the race to launch, others may have different ideas about what, beyond security, is mission critical. Who attracts the best tech people married to the right business vision is likely to survive, but with Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan together introducing 16 VBs, some failures are inevitable.

The mantra for all VBs is to meet the customer’s need. Traditional banks, although they have layer upon layer of security and compliance, have otherwise done a poor job of this, particularly in those areas such as serving SMEs that VBs are expected to attack.

But what is customer need? Just building a better customer experience for the same product as what HSBC offers will be a quick path to failure.

Winning the customer

The MVP for VBs will likely involve two factors to start with, but will change in fairly short order.

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Korea’s fintech scene growing fast: C.S.