The wait is finally over.
It has been nearly 21 months since the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) handed out four digital banking licences to successful bidders.
Two of the licences are digital full bank (DFB) licences and were clinched by a consortium made up of ride-hailing firm Grab (NASDAQ: GRAB) and blue-chip telco Singtel (SGX: Z74).
The other DFB licence was won by Sea Limited (NYSE: SE).
Just this week, the Grab-Singtel digital bank, GXS Bank, launched its first savings product to a limited customer base.
Not to be outdone, Standard Chartered Bank (LON: STAN) has partnered with Fairprice Group to launch their digital bank, Trust Bank, with savings accounts and credit card offerings for customers.
With these launches, should the trio of local banks, namely DBS Group (SGX: D05), United Overseas Bank Ltd (SGX: U11), or UOB, and OCBC Ltd (SGX: O39), get worried?
A slew of benefits
GXS has the first-mover advantage, being the first digital bank to launch its offerings. Thus far, Sea Limited’s digital bank, Maribank, has yet to showcase its products.
GXS’ savings account offers an interest rate of 0.08% accrued daily.
However, customers can create up to eight “pockets” designed for specific saving goals, each of which earns 1.58% interest per annum, also accrued daily.
These pockets are akin to a fixed deposit that offer more attractive interest rates to lock up funds for a specific period.
However, the total deposit cap for both the savings account and pockets is just S$5,000.
For Trust Bank, customers will enjoy an interest rate of 1% per annum on the first S$50,000 with NTUC Union members receiving an additional 0.4% interest on the same threshold of savings for making five eligible Visa (NYSE: V) purchases using their Trust card.
There is no minimum balance for the savings account and the credit card comes without annual fees, foreign transaction charges, cash advance fees or card replacement fees.
Both digital banks are launching with a slew of benefits to attract customers to sign up and open accounts with them, hoping to gradually build up the scale needed to achieve profitability.
The unbanked and under-banked
The original intention for MAS to launch the digital bank licences was for the new players to target both the unbanked and under-banked.
On this note, GXS Bank believes that it has a market potential of around three million customers in Singapore, implying that around half the population can be targeted as customers.
As a start, GXS is targeting the underserved segments of the population such as gig workers, entrepreneurs, and fresh workers.
Trust Bank, on the other hand, is focusing on a wider demographic that includes working adults who are Union members and shop for groceries regularly.
More importantly, the winners of the bid have had to demonstrate a path to profitability in their proposals to the central bank.
However, history has shown that digital banks have not fared well in developed markets such as Singapore.
As an example, digital banks had launched in Hong Kong with 6% interest rates on their deposit accounts to entice customers, but these rates have since fallen as the banks are unable to sustain them.
It’s questionable whether Singapore has sufficient numbers of under-served customers to enable each of these banks to achieve profitability.
Commercial strategy consultancy Simon-Kucher also released sobering statistics on digital banks, also known as Neobanks.
An analysis of 25 of the largest Neobanks in the world found that only two of them, or 4% of the cohort, had achieved profitability.
The incumbents are no pushovers
To make it even tougher for the newcomers, the incumbent banks are no slouches when it comes to digital offerings.
DBS Group was named the world’s best digital bank and was also named the global winner in The Banker’s Innovation in Digital Banking Awards.
Singapore’s largest lender has tapped on its technology infrastructure to facilitate digital payouts from the Singapore government during the pandemic, launched a digital exchange in late 2020, started a new blockchain payments joint venture, and has an artificial intelligence digital adviser NAV Planner.
Last month, UOB launched a new digital banking app for SMEs (small and medium enterprises) to allow them to access a full suite of digital solutions.
The local bank’s TMRW app is expected to acquire around 500,000 customers digitally by the end of this year.
OCBC is the first bank to allow CPF account top-ups from outside the CPF website, and customers can make these contributions through its banking app or internet banking platform.
All three banks have also recently upped their savings account rates by raising the maximum interest rate tiers.
Get Smart: No easy task for the digital banks
The digital banks are launching with a bang by drumming up interest for their new deposit accounts and dangling attractive offers for customers.
However, it remains to be seen if they can gain the traction that they hope for.
It will be an uphill task to snare customers from the incumbents as they are no pushovers and will put up a strong fight.
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Disclaimer: Royston Yang owns shares of DBS Group.