COVID-19 SPECIAL: Silver lining in business - Fintech & e-banking

Coronavirus: More consumers, companies embracing tech

(Clockwise from top left) Singapore Fintech Association president Chia Hock Lai, DBS Bank consumer banking group head Jeremy Soo, OCBC Bank digital and innovation head Pranav Seth and UOB personal financial services head Jacquelyn Tan.

Digital banking was already gaining a strong foothold here but the lockdown is turbo-charging the process among individuals and businesses.

The trend is propelling more companies to adopt digital ways of working such as e-payments, which is giving fintech start-ups and other operators a leg-up amid the pandemic.

"The prolonged social distancing will shape consumer and business behaviour towards digital and across almost all age groups, not just millennials or those who are digitally savvy," notes Singapore Fintech Association president Chia Hock Lai.

"Companies and financial institutions will also accelerate their digitalisation efforts."

But industry professionals and academics say that the start-ups, especially those being supported by deep-pocketed backers, will have to stay afloat for long enough to reap the benefits, and that might be a challenge as funding dries up as investors grow more conservative.

DBS Bank had estimated that it would have one million customers go fully digital by next year, but it has brought this goal forward to this year due to the safe distancing and circuit breaker measures that are driving people online. It is now just 100,000 customers shy of the target.

DBS consumer banking group head Jeremy Soo says: "We anticipate that Covid-19 could accelerate the digital adoption timeline by years.

"We can expect this momentum to be maintained. Past studies have shown that customers who pick up digital payments or banking services tend to keep up with them after overcoming the initial inertia, or when they have the impetus... to adopt digital services."

More than 30,000 of the 100,000 or so who started spending online in the first three months of this year were over 50 years old, Mr Soo adds.

"We saw 100 million more digital banking transactions and an $8 billion increase in the value of transactions being conducted compared with the same period last year," he notes.

OCBC Bank digital and innovation head Pranav Seth says financial transactions increased 40 per cent in the first three months this year compared with the same period last year.

"The value of PayNow transactions increased close to (threefold) year on year," he adds, pointing out that ATM transactions dropped 20 per cent from February to March, given that fewer people could be out and about.

Total online spending at United Overseas Bank was up 22 per cent between January and March compared with the same period last year.

Banking transactions on its mobile app UOB Mighty shot up 44 per cent in the same period over 2019, while PayNow volume on UOB Mighty rose 1.6 times for the same period, says personal financial services head Jacquelyn Tan.

But it is not just the big banks that are getting in on the action.

Tech company Grab, which has an e-wallet and offers food deliveries on its app, has recorded a 200 per cent increase in the number of GrabPay transactions for GrabFood services in recent weeks.

"More consumers are staying home and opting for food deliveries," says a spokesman.

"Users are also making online payments... for their purchases on marketplaces like Qoo10 and Zalora, as well as to make donations to social causes or religious organisations."

Mr Arthur Lang, Singtel's chief executive for its international group, says that remittance volume through its e-wallet Dash increased by about 70 per cent between February and April.

The number of remittance customers has also more than doubled, he adds.

Dash has partnered with online marketplaces Lazada, Shopee and Amazon to offer customers savings in a move to encourage them to use the services while staying home, Mr Lang says.

But while digital finance will be the new normal, the field is uneven, says Mr Chia from the Singapore Fintech Association.

"In the short term, only payment fintechs supporting the likes of e-commerce and food delivery and fintechs in equities or crypto-trading space... are doing well. Other sub-sectors like peer-to-peer lending, robo-advisers and business-to-business fintech enablers are facing headwinds."

Assistant Professor Wang Xin from Nanyang Business School says: "Some fintech companies may have difficulties securing continuous funding support.

"Due to the high unemployment rate and credit needs from the heavily impacted industries like airlines, hospitality (and) entertainment... The funding cost for fintech start-ups may increase in the short term."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 10, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: More consumers, companies embracing tech. Subscribe