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Jack Ma's Ant Financial may join race for Singapore digital bank licences

[SINGAPORE] Billionaire Jack Ma's Ant Financial Services said it may apply for a virtual banking licence in Singapore, a move that would add a heavyweight contender to the race.

"We are actively looking into this opportunity," Ant Financial said in an emailed response to questions from Bloomberg News.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore is offering as many as five digital banking permits to non-banks in a bid to open up the industry to new competitors. A successful entry by Ant Financial would pit China's largest online financial company against traditional incumbents DBS Group Holdings and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp (OCBC) in the growing market for digital banking in South-east Asia.

While Ant didn't disclose whether it will seek a retail or wholesale licence, it will be easier for the Chinese firm to meet the conditions for the latter.

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Singapore's efforts to open up the banking industry to technology companies comes on the heels of a similar move in Hong Kong, where Ant and Chinese competitors including Tencent Holdings obtained licences earlier this year.

"The recent licensing of several China 'Big Tech' banks in Hong Kong represents the formal entry of such players into the international financial system," said James Lloyd, the Asia-Pacific financial-technology lead for consulting firm EY.

"It seems probable that Singapore will follow in this regard," he said, while pointing out that foreign applicants have more room to maneuver with a digital wholesale bank rather than a full-services one.

There are up to two licences on offer for full digital banks, which can serve all kinds of customers and require S$1.5 billion in capital as well as local control. Another three would be for wholesale banks, which foreign firms can run and have a capital threshold of S$100 million.

OCBC has agreed to join peer-to-peer lender Validus Capital and Temasek Holdings' venture capital arm to seek a wholesale licence before the year-end application deadline. DBS, which operates a digital bank in India and Indonesia, hasn't expressed any intention to seek a licence.

South-east Asia's digital lending market is expected to more than quadruple to US$110 billion by 2025, according to a report by Bain & Co, Google and Temasek Holdings.

Ant SME Services (Hong Kong) unit received a permit from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in May to operate a virtual bank in the Chinese territory.

Ant's payments app Alipay and its local e-wallet partners had about 900 million annual active users in China and 1.2 billion globally as of June, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.

BLOOMBERG