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Virtually ready: Digital-only banks set to open in Hong Kong

It’s part of a global trend that’s expected to shake up traditional banking, but are consumers ready for the change?

Virtually ready: Digital-only banks set to open in Hong Kong

Hong Kong, China – Kaki Law lives in Shanghai, but has bills to pay in her native Hong Kong. Like many people in her situation, she pays them online.

“I do all my banking remotely and I hate wasting time in bank branches,” Law, a director at design and technology consultancy R/GA, told Al Jazeera. She uses a combination of digital banking services and mobile apps.

As most Hong Kongers do, Law relies on one of the territory’s top financial institutions. Until recently, all mobile banking services in Hong Kong were provided by established lenders with large branch networks. That is now changing.

New banks with no branches or ATMs are entering Hong Kong’s lucrative financial services industry [Bobby Yip/Reuters]

Last month, Hong Kong’s main financial regulator, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), issued the territory’s first four licences for so called virtual banks – financial service providers with no physical branches. It issuedanother four in May.

These developments are part of a global trend that is giving consumers new ways to carry out financial transactions, something that has until recently been dominated by large banks, and in the process forcing those institutions to reconsider their plans for future growth.

In Hong Kong, these new services offer customers the ability to transfer money to one another and make payments to shops and restaurants through smartphones using square barcodes known as QR codes. But the licences also allow these companies to take deposits and make loans.

The nearly universal usage of smartphones and Hong Kong’s fast mobile internet connections give virtual bank operators the ability to offer financial services without having to run expensive branch and ATM networks.

In the process, they want to break the stranglehold that big banks, cash and ubiquitous Octopus stored value cards have on the market for everyday transactions.

Banking on the internet

But doing so could prove tough for them; almost all of Hong Kong’s residents already have bank accounts and are wary of the risks associated with smartphone-based payment systems now becoming more common across the border in mainland China.

“For person-to-merchant transactions, there is the Octopus card. Bank auto transfers also take care of all the utility bill payments. So, I guess all in all, there hasn’t been an urgent need from the user side in Hong Kong for other institutions or products,” said Law.

The HKMA handed the first batch of licences to online lending platform WeLab and joint ventures involving Bank of China (Hong Kong), Standard Chartered Bank and mainland Chinese insurer ZhongAn Online. Many more could be coming; the regulator received 33 applications.


Standard Chartered is one of the organisations involved in establishing Hong Kong’s first batch of virtual banks [File: Bobby Yip/Reuters]

Meanwhile, a relatively small but growing proportion of Hong Kongers is using services provided by the giants of mobile payment on the mainland:AliPay and WeChat Pay.

For many in the financial services industry, the HKMA’s move to licence local mobile financial service providers is a welcome move. They have long complained that Hong Kong’s regulators have been too slow to take advantage of a rapidly growing sector, especially compared to neighbouring mainland China.

“The concept of virtual banks only started to take off in Asia recently as a booming [financial technology] sector and an increasingly tech-savvy customer base led authorities to ease ownership requirements for virtual banks,” said Carrie Leung, CEO of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers. 

“In Hong Kong specifically, the emergence of virtual banks will further enhance the development of fintech and create more job opportunities for fintech specialists,” Leung told Al Jazeera.

On the mainland, mobile payment services AliPay, owned by Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial, and Tencent’s WeChat Pay dominate the sector, which recorded 120.3 trillion yuan ($17.6 trillion) in transactions in 2017, more than double the amount of the previous year, according to Chinese online audience measurement firm iResearch.

These services are also available in Hong Kong. But people have been slower to take to them here than on the mainland.

Source: Aljazeera News

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