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Asia’s virtual banks need to redefine “MVP”

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

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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Banking & Payments

What China’s new crypto law is all about

DigFin asked the legal eagles at Latham & Watkins to tell us what we need to know.

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Image by Jack Moreh on Stockvault

In late October, China passed a cryptography law that goes into effect on January 1, 2020. The law itself is short on specifics but makes a distinction in how Beijing is likely to treat blockchain-related projects serving the state, versus those being pursued for commercial purposes.

The law also comes at a time of heightened expectations of the People’s Bank of China issuing a digital renminbi, of which there has been much speculation and guesswork. The law doesn’t directly address any framework for a digital renminbi, which although a government project would involve private-sector wallets and payments in order to propagate the currency.

Given this situation, DigFin figured whatever clarity exists will have been parsed by the legal industry.

Latham & Watkins’ counsel Simon Hawkins, who leads the firm’s financial regulatory practice for Asia Pacific, and his colleagues compiled the following report for our readers. Thank you, L&W.

The crypto law

The new cryptography law is not specific to (and does not mention) financial services, fintech or digital currencies. The definition of “cryptography” is very broad and, while the introduction of the law is timely in the context of the PBoC digital currency project and other high-level government pronouncements about the potential for using blockchain technology (which inherently relies upon cryptography), there are many other industries in which cryptography is used (e.g., defense, telecoms, military hardware, government I.T. systems, certain consumer software, etc) and the new law provides a framework that would also cover those industries.

State secrets?

The law is a framework. In due course, State cryptography administrations will develop cryptography administration regulations that will supplement the law. In some parts the law is intended to work in conjunction with the existing PRC Cybersecurity Law.

While the law is clearly a significant development and paves the way for specific standards and controls to be applied to cryptography, it is not entirely clear how the law will be applied in the context of the PBoC’s digital currency project. This is partly because it is not immediately apparent whether/how cryptographic technology that is involved with/linked to the PBoC digital currency will be categorized under the new law.

Stricter controls and standards apply to cryptography involving state secrets. There is a question as to whether there will be aspects of the technology underpinning the digital currency that will be state secrets – and, by extension, whether cryptographic solutions to be used in conjunction with the digital currency also will characterized as involving state secrets. Or will it be regarded as purely commercial cryptography, with no state secrets involved.

Even commercial cryptography can become subject to more onerous rules or requirements under the new law if the commercial cryptography involves state security, the national economy and people’s livelihoods, and/or the social public interest.

It is not a stretch to imagine how these triggers could be met if the PBOo digital currency has a high uptake after it is launched.

State versus commercial

The law distinguishes between three types of cryptography: (1) core cryptography, (2) common cryptography and (3) commercial cryptography.

Core cryptography is used to protect top secrets of the State and common cryptography is used to protect confidential secrets of the State.

Commercial cryptography is used to protect information that is not related to, or does not involve, State secrets.

Core and common cryptography are strictly managed by government authorities. The law stipulates that the State’s confidential information must use core and common cryptography for encrypted data protection and security certification.

Commercial cryptography, on the other hand, is for the protection of information not considered State secrets. It can be used by businesses and individuals to enhance the security of information that exists on, or is transmitted through, the internet.

Where does the digital yuan fall?

In the context of the PBoC digital currency project, it is not immediately clear whether wallet providers for the digital currency would fall into the common or commercial categories of cryptography.

Presumably this could depend on whether the protocols on which the digital currency operates are considered to be State secrets, in which case a wallet provider using cryptography to protect the integrity of the wallet could be subject to the higher standards for common cryptography imposed by the new law.

On the other hand, the cryptography used in e-wallets that currently exist for existing stored value/payments platforms in China (i.e., where the wallet reflects a digital version of cash in a bank account) appears more likely to fall into the commercial cryptography category.

And wallet operators?

Critical information infrastructure operators (CIIOs) are treated in a similar way under this law as they are under the Cybersecurity Law.

CIIOs will be required to seek assessment and approval by a government authority when procuring cryptography solutions in certain cases. This is not too dissimilar from the way that CIIOs are impacted under the Cyber Security Law when they process certain personal information – meaning this in some way aligns the requirements for CIIOs in respect of processing personal information and now cybersecurity.

Wallet providers for the PBoC digital currency could, if they achieve sufficient scale, become CIIOs and become subject to the State security review procedure (this could be unpalatable for foreign-invested enterprises that are categorized as CIIOs).

The use of commercial cryptography in the context of “mass consumer systems” is not expected to need an export/import licensing review, suggesting the law is more focused on State secrets and CIIOs, and the use of commercial cryptography for those types of solutions.

However, “mass consumer systems” is not defined in the law so it is not obvious whether wallet providers would be classified as “mass consumer systems” under the law.

What about foreign-invested providers?

Commercial cryptography products involving State security, national economy and people’s livelihood, and social public interests will be included in the catalogue of critical network equipment and dedicated cybersecurity products.

Such products cannot be sold until they have passed the testing and certification conducted by a “qualified agency.” The applicable provisions of the Cybersecurity Law will apply to the testing and certification of such commercial cryptography products.

It is possible that digital currency wallets could be subject to these requirements if they are regarded as commercial cryptography products that involve state security, national economy and people’s livelihood and/or social public interests – and this outcome may be unpalatable for foreign-invested enterprises that develop such products.

Interoperability of wallets – including abroad

Parts of the law focus on and appear to encourage standardization, reflecting perhaps a desire to achieve greater interoperability of systems over time (which is a problem associated with blockchain technology).

The law also specifically mentions that the State promotes participation by enterprises, social groups and educational and scientific research institutions in international standardization activities on commercial cryptography.

Even though the PBoC rhetoric on the digital currency project so far has focused only on its domestic usage, this could be a nod to potential cross-border development of the digital currency in due course (or at least these does appear to be some scope for this under the law).

Misconduct

The law imposes penalties for misconduct. For example, those who discover vulnerabilities in core and common cryptography (i.e., cryptography used for matters involving state secrets) but fail to report it to authorities may be subject to liability and punishment under the law. In addition, persons involved in commercial activities relating to unauthorized cryptography products and services may also be subject to punishment under the law.

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Banking & Payments

Revolut’s live in Asia. Now what?

The fintech is competing in an environment very different from its home market.

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Jacub Zakrzewski, Revolut

In Europe, Revolut now has around 7 million users after just four years of operation, making it one of the world’s most exciting fintech companies. It’s now live in Asia, having just made its debut in Singapore, and with Australia and Japan waiting in the wings.

But Asia has already proved to be a tougher challenge than Europe, as Singapore-based managing director Jakub Zakrzewski acknowledged in his recent sit-down with DigFin.

What is Revolut? It’s a debit account-app aimed at affluent people who travel, with services that undercut banks. For a monthly fee, Singaporean residents can open a debit account via their mobile, receive a Revolut card (plastic or metal), and use it to spend worldwide in Singaporean dollars or 12 other currencies. Revolut offers interbank rates for foreign exchange and free money withdrawals worldwide. In Europe, Revolut also offers free commissions on trading stocks or cryptocurrencies (like RobinHood in the U.S.).

Singapore has plenty of customers that could be Revolut users. But scaling in Asia will be difficult. First of all, the region presents all companies, especially fintechs like Revolut, with the challenge of fragmented markets.

The culture offers a challenge too. Banks in Asia, especially in Singapore, are already at the forefront of digital innovation (at least by bank standards). In 2014, when Revolut was founded, the mood in Britain was in full hate-the-banks swing; but today, Asians still trust their big bank brands.

Finally, the competitive landscape is different to what Revolut grew up with: there’s no Grab or other “superapp” competition in London or Berlin. Singapore, on the other hand, boasts not only Grab but also an endless parade of consumer-facing fintechs.

The MAS is also about to issue virtual bank licenses, and while Revolut debuted in Britain where there was already a healthy environment of challenger banks, none of them (Monzo, Starling, etc) were built on the capital or sophistication of superapps: but in Singapore, the likes of Grab as well as big players like Singtel have indicated they’ll compete to win these licenses.

Launch delays

Zakrzewski says the fragmented nature of the region was a bigger hurdle than the company initially understood. Revolut won a money-operating license from the fintech-friendly British Financial Conduct Authority, which allowed it to market throughout the European Union. Its license in Singapore is just for Singapore, so expanding to new markets means extra layers of cost and complexity.

But this was not the real reason why Revolut’s launch was delayed, after having been announced for the start of this year or even earlier.

There were two factors to the delay. One was regulation. The Monetary Authority of Singapore has recently passed a Payments Services Act that consolidates licenses, but until then, Revolut had to operate one license for storing money and other to remit it.

We’re working to convince people it’s better to be early so you’re not playing catch-up when your experience is no longer relevant

Jakub Zakrzewski, Revolut

The second hurdle was talent.

“In Europe,” Zakrzewski said, “startups are seen as fun and innovative, and offer higher risk but higher rewards. In Singapore, there is a still the perception that people want to work for big corporate brands. They want the prestige and pay of a top-tier investment bank or consultancy.”

As a result, “We spent a crazy amount of time on recruitment, working to convince people that it’s better to be early [by joining a fintech] so you’re not playing catch-up when your experience is no longer relevant.”

Payment partners

So now that Revolut has launched in Singapore, with about 30,000 users, how does the company maintain that pace?

One boost are global deals cut in London with VISA and Mastercard. The payment companies will support Revolut issuing their credit cards. This kind of brand recognition should support Revolut’s rollout. (Recent news about the company seeking a $20 billion valuation for an IPO is also helpful, Zakrzewski says.) The card companies have seen fintechs like Revolut carve out a slice of the market for forex, and prefer to team up so that money circulates through their payment rails.

But that’s more of a bonus rather than core to Revolut’s Asia prospects. To make an impact, it will have to maintain a furious pace.

The barriers to innovation are coming down every year

Jakub Zakrzewski, Revolut

“If we don’t continue to innovate, we’ll be disrupted,” Zakrzewski  said. “The barriers to innovation are coming down every year.”

That innovation is primarily about finding ways to improve the customer experience, he says.

Do the economics work?

But is that sustainable? Ride-hailing app companies are losing money, and the torpedoed WeWork IPO in the U.S. shows the limits to customer numbers. In Singapore, most people are spoiled for choice when it comes to credit cards, for example.

“It’s not going to be a bloodbath,” Zakrzewski said. “We’re not going to throw money around like a ride-hailing company. We’re going to focus on the best [finance] product that keeps people using it.”

We will all compete on service, not on price

Jakub Zakrzewski, Revolut

Revolut in Europe has succeeded in building user numbers by offering things like free commissions. But commission-free just suggests that a great swathe of financial services is headed towards zero rates. How does anyone, fintech or bank, make money? What’s the premium service that customers will pay for?

Zakrzewski disputes the premise. “Things are not going to end up at zero. They’re going to a level better understood by clients.”

Revolut versus the banks

The difference, he argues, is that traditional banks are hampered by quarter-to-quarter thinking and rely on big marketing budgets to remain relevant. Fintech players like Revolut, as well as e-commerce and other disrupters, will force banks to go through a massive restructuring, as they focus on growing revenue and cut costs.

That doesn’t mean going entirely digital, either. But it does imply that financial institutions still have a formidable transformation ahead.

Despite the presence of Amazon and Shopify, “There are still retail shops, for niche things,” he said. “Brick-and-mortar banks will have a similar role. But every bank should become a technology company.”

Incumbents have been innovative when it comes to hiding fees

Jakub Zakrzewski, Revolut

Sounds slick – but it doesn’t answer the question of what customers will continue to pay for. Zakrzewski provides an additional answer:

“We will all compete on service, not on price, by relying on an agile tech stack for a leaner cost structure, and on good developers to provide better products.”

Transformation for all

In a twist, he says banks have actually been very innovative. Just at things that aren’t going to be relevant anymore.

“Incumbents have been innovative when it comes to hiding fees, in order to make more money.” The transparency, efficiency and good digital experience that fintechs can bring will render this model increasingly moot.

Banks will instead find themselves on the same hamster wheel as Revolut and other fast-paced companies, fighting for the same talent to build the best product, and constantly innovating. Zakrzewski says the introduction of virtual banks will provide the industry with a necessary jolt to make banks more competitive.

One thing that banks tend to be good at, or at least have resources to manage, is cyber security. As open APIs create new vulnerabilities, fintech companies will find themselves increasingly under attack. How can a firm such as Revolut protect itself and its users, without spending the billions of dollars that global banks dedicate to security?

Revolut this year hired its first chief information security officer. Zakrzewski thinks this could lead to a new wave of services. “This needs to be the new normal for any tech company. I can see ‘Information Security as a Service’ becoming a thing.”

Alongside this is using customer engagement to educate users about data and money storage.

Superapp strategy

What about the superapps? Revolut has no experience of these behemoths in Europe. How will it compete against them, particularly given their deep, deep pockets?

“We focus on providing the best experience in financial services,” Zakrzewski said. “And you know what? It’s really hard.” He believes digital conglomerates lack the expertise, focus and DNA to do fintech well. 

All of this comes down to Revolut, or any company’s, ability to keep pleasing its users. It’s working in Europe. But Asia’s a different environment.

Zakrzewski says the only way to survive is to rely on local talent to make decisions and reward innovation. “Great companies fail in Asia if they can’t localize and iterate,” he said.

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Banking & Payments

Singtel advances banking ambition with OCBC

Can the telco use its mobile partner network to beat techfins, fintechs, and banks?

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Singtel has added OCBC Bank as a mobile payments partner, enabling the bank’s customers to reduce their need for cash when visiting Thailand or Japan. But the telco’s e-wallet is only a stepping stone to its becoming a bank. Singtel and OCBC are expected to jointly apply for a virtual-banking license in Singapore (although Singtel might yet decide to seek a license independently). What might this look like?

OCBC is the second regional bank, after Thailand’s Kasikorn Bank, to join the telco’s mobile-payments platform, an app called Dash. Bank customers can use their own banking apps to make Singapore-dollar denominated, cashless payments with merchants in Singtel’s network, which it calls VIA.

Singapore’s digital infrastructure makes this possible, as Dash users can move money easily thanks to MyInfo (for data sharing), PayNow (for peer-to-peer funds transfer), a local standard for QR codes, and Singaporean banks’ early lead in developing open APIs.

As of the end of 2018, Singtel said it has over half a million Dash users, including Singapore residents, tourists, and – most importantly – foreign workers in Singapore. Such workers are often lower income people who are not well served by banks who join Dash to remit money home. Singtel is now gradually adding more financial services to Dash, such as very basic insurance packages from NTUC Income, says Valerie Law, an analyst writing on Smart Karma.

The ambition

But Singtel is looking at a market for banking services 100 times bigger: the 50 million consumers and 2 million merchants in its VIA network across Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan.

In addition, the mobile payments industry in Southeast Asia is vast, driven by high adoption rates of smartphones. Singtel has partnered with Razer, an e-gaming company that is in talks to acquire MOL Global, a major e-payment network in Southeast Asia that is used by e-commerce giants like Lazada and Grab.

Valerie Law has identified a few strengths of Singtel as a virtual bank. (Be sure to check out her various reports on Smart Karma, which go deep into the details and also provide a good competitor landscape.)

Singtel’s strengths…

First, while the license prohibits bank branches, Singtel nonetheless has lots of shops and kiosks around Singapore, where users go to top up airtime, among other things – an infrastructure that could be readily converted to topping up money or to pitch users financial products. Bundling telco and payments should help Singtel build a deposit base in short order.

Secondly, in Singapore, many merchants accept Dash, so there’s a ready network of players to accept payments and offer deals such as cash back, giving Dash the opportunity to evolve into a “lifestyle app”. Dash can also be used to pay for public transportation (unlike Grab). And it offers competitive foreign-exchange rates for local markets.

…and weaknesses

Law also noted the app has flaws, such as no customer support, not even a chatbot. And its remittance function only works with recipients on the network, which means no one can direct money back home to pay bills directly to a hospital, for example.

Indeed, Singtel would be going up against companies such as Grab, LINE and Alibaba that have well-developed user bases and advanced processes, such as credit scoring, which provide them with an edge – while also fighting lifestyle fintechs such as Revolut (which is more positioned for affluent users), TNG (a direct competitor for the foreign-worker segment) and Oriente (which is offering consumer loans via local consumer conglomerates in the Philippines and Indonesia). Throw in remittance players like InstaRem and Transferwise, plus incumbents such as Western Union, and the picture gets muddy indeed.

Singtel’s best weapon, as close to a “sure thing” that exists in business, is that demand for mobile and mobile services will grow. As a leading telco, this is a big advantage; with a virtual-banking license, it will be able to add on a growing number of payment, deposit, lending, insurance and investment products.

So within its network of merchants and partner banks, Singtel looks competitive. The question is whether it can develop its wallets and other services to be competitive in the broader market.

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Asia’s virtual banks need to redefine “MVP”