Field notes

Myanmar banks sprout branches at furious pace

Grocery shop owner Wai Shan Phyo checking his phone banking application on his mobile phone while in his shop. But the 28-year-old limits himself to items costing no more than 15,000 kyat, in case his orders never arrive. Above: Two women leaving a K
Ms Mya Mya Win's shoe shop in Pyinmana provides Wave Money services, which allows customers to remit money without stepping into a bank or owning a bank account.ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE
Grocery shop owner Wai Shan Phyo checking his phone banking application on his mobile phone while in his shop. But the 28-year-old limits himself to items costing no more than 15,000 kyat, in case his orders never arrive. Above: Two women leaving a K
Two women leaving a Kanbawza (KBZ) Bank branch in Yangon. KBZ is Myanmar's largest private bank.ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE
Grocery shop owner Wai Shan Phyo checking his phone banking application on his mobile phone while in his shop. But the 28-year-old limits himself to items costing no more than 15,000 kyat, in case his orders never arrive. Above: Two women leaving a K
Grocery shop owner Wai Shan Phyo checking his phone banking application on his mobile phone while in his shop. But the 28-year-old limits himself to items costing no more than 15,000 kyat, in case his orders never arrive.ST PHOTOS: TAN HUI YEE

Mobile services also expanding rapidly even as regulators try to clean up the books

Far away from the commercial hub of Yangon, in Pyinmana town in central Myanmar where depositing money at a bank can take hours, locals exchange tips on which branches have the shortest queues.

Mr Wai Shan Phyo, however, whips out his Xiaomi and activates the phone banking application.

"I used to go to the bank four times a month," the 28-year-old grocery shop owner tells The Straits Times. "Now, I go once a month, or not at all."

Such are the changes in Myanmar's banking sector, which best exemplifies the rapid yet complex way in which the country's economy is playing catch-up after five decades of direct military rule.

Aided by a telecommunications boom, commercial banks are sprouting branches at a breakneck pace while offering new ways for customers to manage their money without ever stepping into one. The central bank, meanwhile, is trying to whip local banks into shape without starving the economy of funds.

At stake is the future of commercial life in a country of 53 million, which remains dominated by corporations close to the previous military regime. While the government has been trying to open up space for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), many struggle with a lending system which relies largely on real estate as collateral.

  • 3.3

    Number of commercial bank branches for every 100,000 people in Myanmar in 2015.

STARTING FROM A LOW BASE

Myanmar's financial reform is starting from a very low base. In 2015, the country had only 3.3 commercial bank branches for every 100,000 people, the second-fewest in South-east Asia after Laos.

Here, even men sport fat purses as most transactions are done in cash, with the highest denomination just 10,000 kyat (S$10).

The deep distrust of the banking system had been bred by earlier rounds of demonetisation under junta rule and a brief run on one bank as recently as in 2012. In 2014, only 22.8 per cent of those aged 15 years or older had bank accounts, and only 0.4 per cent used a bank account to receive wages.

FEWER TRIPS

I used to go to the bank four times a month. Now, I go once a month, or not at all.

MR WAI SHAN PHYO, a grocery shop owner who uses a phone banking application.


ANOTHER OPTION

More people come to my shop on weekends, or other days when banks are closed.

WAVE AGENT MYA MYA WIN, saying that she gets 10 to 15 customers a day.


HIGH PRESSURE

On payday there is tremendous pressure on our automated teller machines (ATMs) and tremendous pressure on branches.

MR UTPAL BORA, chief information officer of Kanbawza Bank, on the high demand due to the growing number of people opening bank accounts to receive their wages.


DEMAND REMAINS

Cash will continue to be important in Myanmar for at least one generation, if not more. Therefore, we don't expect banks to stop opening new branches.

MR AZEEM AZIMUDDIN, chief financial officer of privately owned Ayeyarwady Bank.

"On payday there is tremendous pressure on our automated teller machines (ATMs) and tremendous pressure on branches," says Mr Utpal Bora, chief information officer of Kanbawza Bank (KBZ). KBZ, which is also Myanmar's largest private bank, dispatches van-mounted ATMs to the busiest areas in Yangon to meet the demand for kyat.

To date, KBZ customers have opened over three million individual and company accounts. One out of every five new customers opens an online banking account, says Mr Bora. The bank opened 100 branches in the past 16 months across Myanmar and unveiled its 500th outlet last month , in Yangon.

Ripples of such rapid growth are being felt over 300km away in Pyinmana, where Mr Thet Naing, 39, opened his first bank account early this year. The motorcycle taxi driver goes to his neighbourhood bank twice a month to squirrel away 20,000 to 50,000 kyat each time for his three children's education.

"I used to go to the bank in the afternoon and finish only in the evening," he recalls. "But the service got better in August. It took only 10 minutes."

Being a late mover has its advantages. Banks, while rushing to erect brick-and-mortar branches, have also compounded that growth with the latest technology.

Yoma Bank, another private bank, got a head start last year by teaming up with telecommunications provider Telenor to launch Wave Money, which allows users to store money in their mobile phone "wallets" and send money to one another without stepping into a bank or owning a bank account.

Yoma customers can also move money into their mobile wallets easily. The service relies on its network of thousands of agents, who just need a mobile phone and a SIM card to process transactions.

At Wave agent Mya Mya Win's shop in Pyinmana, customers can browse for shoes and sandals while waiting to remit funds, up to the daily limit of 500,000 kyat. She gets 10 to 15 customers per day.

"More people come to my shop on weekends, or other days when banks are closed," she observes.

In September, Ooredoo, another telco, launched a similar service called M-Pitesan with Co-operative Bank.

The proliferation of mobile money options is unlikely to crimp the expansion of banks.

Mr Azeem Azimuddin, chief financial officer of privately owned Ayeyarwady Bank (AYA), says: "Cash will continue to be important in Myanmar for at least one generation, if not more. Therefore, we don't expect banks to stop opening new branches."

The branches, however, will evolve from being the main point of contact between the bank and the customer, to being "support centres", he adds.

New technology has enabled Myanmar's banks to reduce the cost of modernisation. AYA shaved "a few million dollars" off its info-technology upgrade bill by creating a private cloud infrastructure using software from American firm VMware.

CLEANING UP THE BOOKS

The pace of banking innovations has meant that regulators are playing catch-up with the private sector.

In February, the International Monetary Fund warned: "The Myanmar banking sector is undercapitalised compared to the risks it faces, including concentration and interrelated lending risks, weak accounting and auditing practices, and the need for further strengthening prudential supervision and regulation."

Myanmar has over two dozen banks, the majority privately owned and which had on their books 16.67 trillion kyat of loans in June, according to central bank figures.

Analysts have expressed concern over the abuse of overdrafts, which reportedly make up some 70 per cent or more of all loans. These in practice are loans which are rolled over indefinitely.

"It's been a problem for a long time, and it was very hard to know which loans are good, and which loans are bad," says Dr Sean Turnell, an Australian economics professor and economic adviser to the Myanmar government.

The central bank issued new regulations in July that, among other things, required banks to clear overdraft loans annually, failing which they would be treated as non-performing loans. But banks complained that the January 2018 deadline was too short and risked destabilising the entire financial system. Last month, the regulator pushed the deadline down the road by allowing the banks to convert the overdraft loans to three-year loans.

Meanwhile, years of isolation under military rule and international sanctions have stunted corporate standards and credit assessment capabilities, making lending to all but the most established firms a challenge, say analysts.

"It's very hard for start-ups to get a loan," says Dr Maung Maung Lay, vice-president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. "The SMEs here, you can't even call them SMEs. They are micro-enterprises or nano-enterprises."

Banks are still relying heavily on title deeds to assess loan requests amid lax accounting, observes Mr Soe Win, a former banker and country managing partner at Deloitte Touche Myanmar Vigour Advisory. "If you ask SMEs to give you financial statements, you may get a made-up one," he says.

Bankers say the deposit rate floor of 8 per cent and interest rate ceiling of 13 per cent set by the central bank limit the room they have to impose tougher standards.

"Let's say you come to me for a loan," Mr Pyi Soe Htin, executive director of Asia Green Development Bank's international banking division, said on the sidelines of a recent Euromoney conference in Naypyitaw. "So I'll be strict, and say: 'Show me your financial statement. Show me your business plan.' You will go to (another) bank, because it makes no difference - we are all lending at a 13 per cent interest rate."

Such lingering issues mean it will take time for consumers to trust the country's financial networks even as they embrace the possibilities of modern banking.

Back in Pyinmana, Mr Wai Shan Phyo has used his phone banking app to buy pickled tea leaf salad and ready-to-eat fried beans from far corners of the country. But he limits himself to items costing no more than 15,000 kyat, in case his orders never arrive.

"Building trust is hard in Myanmar," he says. "In the future, when the banks in the country modernise, I will do more transactions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline 'Myanmar banks sprout branches at furious pace '. Print Edition | Subscribe