The rise of neobanks in Southeast Asia: How far can they go?

Photo: Tinkoff Bank, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Southeast Asian consumers unable to gain credit or access traditional banks are turning to neobanks. Conditions are ripe for these challengers to traditional financial institutions to make progress, although COVID-19 might threaten their disruptive potential.

By John Pennington

A report by UnaFinancial, an international financial group, suggests that neobanks—banks with no physical location offering exclusively digital services—are set to deliver financial services to more than 50 million people in the Philippines by 2025.

In a separate study, UnaFinancial predicted that the Philippines will achieve 81-85% internet penetration by 2025—a key precondition for digital banking adoption.

Though the estimate excludes some groups, such as the unemployed and low income groups, the study projects that 51.4 million Filipinos will be online within five years, a figure very close to the 51.2 million who are currently unbanked.

“Certainly, it will take time to realize the neobanks’ customer potential in the Philippines, but in the next one or two years, there will be millions of real clients,” said Sergey Sedov, UnaFinancial’s chief executive officer.

“For instance, today, at least 8 million of such citizens live in 500 cities that are not covered by bank branches. This population, as well as people from other segments including informal workers, youth and applicants rejected by banks, will provide a sufficient basis for the rapid growth of neobanks in the Philippines,” he added.

What makes a neobank a viable option?

Unlike traditional banks, neobanks do not have to cover the overheads and staff costs associated with operating physical branches. They can pass on these savings—estimated at up to 40%—to their customers via attractive savings rates and low-interest loans and by eliminating transaction or subscription fees.

With 18% of the region unable to access credit, neobanks offer an alternative for millions of Southeast Asians. A 2019 report by accounting firm KPMG estimated that 73% of Southeast Asians were unbanked and in Cambodia, just 5% of people had a bank account. Many of ASEAN’s unbanked are on low incomes but do have access to mobile phones, from which they can open an account with a neobank quickly conveniently.

Furthermore, the ASEAN population is predominantly young. Neobanks have an obvious appeal to younger people who don’t want to go to a branch or cannot do so. Furthermore, banking remotely is an attractive option at a time when citizens could have to self-isolate or follow lockdown measures at any time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo: Pxhere

Where else might neobanks make an impact?

According to a report by US credit rating agency Fitch published in August, neobanks are a long way from making significant inroads into the hold that traditional banking institutions have on the market across Southeast Asia.

However, it highlighted that they were likely to make the most headway in Indonesia and the Philippines. Conditions in the Philippines, with around 46% of its population unbanked and the majority owning a mobile phone, are ripe for neobanks. Like the Philippines, Indonesia has a median age of under 30 and two-thirds of unbanked adults in the country own a mobile phone.

Furthermore, some neobanks in the region are making impacts in countries where the unbanked are a minority. In June, Aspire became the first Southeast Asian neobank to use Railsbank SGD bank accounts. Railsbank is an open banking platform and this example shows how organizations can harness and combine fintech platforms to offer innovative services.

Others making headway include BigPay in Malaysia and Octo in the Philippines but one thing is clear: if neobanks are to succeed, they must tailor their solutions to the needs of each local market.

“They must consider many alternative models and data sources if they hope to meet the needs of small businesses across Southeast Asia,” assessed Oleg Patsiansky, BPC Banking Technologies’ head of digital banking. “After all, neobanks have made a great start, but the race is far from over—and it requires them to build from a true understanding of the local market.”

Is the impact of COVID-19 helping or hindering neobanks?

Those within the sector are split about how COVID-19 will affect neobanks. Christopher Davison, BigPay’s chief executive officer, believes neobanks are well placed to prosper as the world copes with the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is catalyzing global macroeconomic trends that were already in motion,” he said. “High street stores were already struggling with competition from e-commerce; consumers were beginning to use less physical cash, and people were moving towards financial technology firms and away from traditional banks.

“Southeast Asia was already leapfrogging many Western economies in terms of digital adoption, particularly in terms of payments and banking.”

While he acknowledges neobanks could suffer if funding is reduced in the wake of the pandemic, he feels this could revitalize the market. He added that neobanks in Southeast Asia are well placed—particularly those in Malaysia and Singapore–thanks to decisive action during the outbreak that has given these economies the chance to rebound while others in the West are still struggling.

“This pre-emptive rather than reactive response will not only save many thousands of lives but will also position the economy on a much stronger footing to open up sooner and rebound,” he added.

Another theory is that as COVID-19 forces economies to contract, more businesses and individuals could be denied access to credit via traditional means. This is where neobanks can step in; more flexible than traditional banks, they can use alternative data sources such as phone records to enable customers to build a credit score and secure loans, for example.

Others believe the pandemic will force traditional banks to move quickly to digitize their services, closing off areas of the market or making switching to a neobank less appealing. Fitch’s analysts predicted that ventures backed by established corporations or large technology firms would be most likely to succeed.

With millions in Southeast Asia still unbanked, neobanks have time and opportunity to gain a foothold. They will fare much better in some countries than others, like Indonesia and the Philippines. They could put traditional banks under pressure in others, such as Malaysia and Singapore.

As more banks, financial institutions and even companies such as Grab and Go-Jek muscle in on the sector, consumers will have more choice—whether they are unbanked or not. That should drive competition and innovation, or as Davison put it, “create more disciplined, healthier and more resilient businesses.” Those seeking financial services across the region should therefore benefit as neobanks go from strength to strength.

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.