Prof Dr Nafis Alam, PGCHE, SFHEA
Head, School of Accounting and Finance
Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation (APU)
Financial Technology (FinTech) is changing the way people carry out their day-to-day financial services mainly through the use of apps or digital channels designed for their convenience and cost-effectiveness. Such financial apps are often based on mobile phones in the form of “digital wallets” that store credit cards, debit cards, and sometimes account information, thus eliminates the need for cash or checks. While using the Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered investment apps, investors have the flexibility to invest anywhere and everywhere. With the emergence of the unheard financial products and services like Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), Embedded Finance, Defi and more recently Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL), FinTech is revolutionising the way we engage with financial services.
Even though FinTech has wide-ranging applications and there is plenty of reading on how FinTech is shaping the financial world, this piece will be more focused on the two hot FinTech products, NFTs and BNPL, which are attracting wide-ranging discourse on their suitability as a financial product and challenges they bring along. I will also share my perspective on why FinTech knowledge and awareness is key for its sustained growth.
A couple of weeks ago, a digital billboard right in front of Lot 10, Kuala Lumpur, showed the image of a pudgy penguin, nothing unique, right? But it was part of the intriguing project which is taking the NFT world by storm. Pudgy Penguins, a collection of 8,888 randomly generated avatar NFTs that sold out in just 19 minutes and generated over 30,753 Ethereum or US$97.6 million (RM403 million) in total sales volume with rarer pieces being sold at 150 Ether (ETH), the cryptocurrency of the Ethereum network. Closer to home, Malaysia’s local graffiti artist and illustrator, Katun managed to gain a total sale of 127.60 ETH for his NFT art collection, equivalent to around RM1.63 million on the day of their release. So what is so cool about NFT and why are there so much hype in the FinTech world? An NFT is a digital asset that represents real-world objects like digital art, drawings, music, in-game items, videos and even a tweet that are bought and sold online, usually with cryptocurrency, and is generally encoded with the same underlying software as many cryptos. For instance, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and CEO, auctioned his first-ever tweet originally uploaded on 21 March 2006 that read “just setting up my twttr” as an NFT. The tweet was bought using ETH and had a final bid of US$2.9 million (RM11.97 million). Having a digital record, most NFTs are part of the Ethereum blockchain.
As the name suggests, NFTs are non-fungible, meaning they can’t be swapped for something of completely equal value. The value of the NFT lies in its uniqueness and it represents exclusive ownership of a particular digital asset. In a simple term, since NFTs are unique, they have no equivalent value other than what the market is willing to pay for them. NFT can only have one owner and by buying an NFT, the owner purchases the exclusive ownership of a particular digital asset.
The next key questions are, is it worth investing so much money in NFTs? Are they valuable? What will be the future value of those investments? Any crypto investment comes with its challenges and since NFTs are traded in crypto, it follows the same volatile and unpredictable nature of the crypto market. Going with the current hype in cryptocurrencies, NFTs are bound to follow the same interest, but it is difficult to predict the future value of NFTs. Since NFTs will be tagged to the value of ETH or related cryptocurrencies, their value will be attached to the highs and lows of the crypto and the future popularity of the digital assets. Another challenge in buying an NFT is confirming the authenticity of the underlying token itself. As NFTs are completely being sold online, it might be the case where counterfeit digital art can be sold for the price of the original item. Tax authorities are also yet to allocate preferential tax treatment to NFTs as same as some preferred stocks. The overall gains from trading in NFTs might not be that advantageous unless anyone has plenty of funds to spend on acquiring collectibles.
Overall, investing in NFTs is a fad among crypto enthusiasts and a race to hoard some priceless digital tokens but it is too early to prove if NFTs can be considered a valuable investment and we need some time to prove their worth.
Another popular FinTech segment that is becoming a big hit among millennials is the Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL), which is a short-term financing option that allows customers to make purchases without having to pay the full amount upfront. Customers might pay a small fraction of the total cost upfront (ranging between 10% and 25%) while the balance must be paid weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or any other predetermined payment schedule. BNPL has its own fan base with both millennials and Gen Z consumers are attracted to its no-frill and instalment-based payment system. With limited or poor credit history, BNPL has emerged as one of the popular financing options available especially during the COVID-19-induced eCommerce boom. With the euphoria for BNPL, the global BNPL market which was only US$4.07 billion in 2020, is expected to reach US$20.40 billion by 2028, registering a CAGR of 22.4% from 2021 to 2028.
Initially pressed as a solution to increase the financial inclusion for credit card deprived consumers, BNPL is starting to emerge as a new debt trap for young professionals who do not have or don’t want to have a traditional credit card with high-interest rates. Trendy lifestyle, social media influence, easy availability of credit and no interest rate charged by BNPL providers are fuelling the rise of its popularity among young consumers. Due to less stringent credit checks and onboarding requirements by platforms, it is easier for customers to rack up debt by spending the money which they don’t have and often leading to overspending. Not only is BNPL adding debt pressure, but the non-payment of pre-determined instalment plans is also eating up the potential credit score.
Even though in Malaysia, BNPL usage is way behind countries such as in the US, China, Australia, its attractiveness is soon going to catch up, making it a popular FinTech segment in the country. Pine Lab, one of the leading BNPL platforms, has already onboarded leading merchants as well as banks like CIMB Bank, AmBank and RHB Bank on its platform. An interesting feature of BNPL is that it is largely an unregulated business for anyone and everyone to join, both from the provider and users perspective. Regulating BNPL platforms is crucial for both business continuity and consumer protection in addition to not creating an ecosystem of easy personal financing which could lead to defaults and financial uncertainties. From a FinTech viewpoint, huge defaults from BNPL users can also adversely impact platform survival in the long run.
It is clear that while FinTech does provide new and innovative ways of investment (NFT) and financing (BNPL), the education and awareness of FinTech concepts is key for the booming financial services industry. Educating young Malaysians about FinTech should be the utmost priority of the higher education sector which should include courses on data-driven financial analysis, application of Machine Learning and AI in financial decision making, application of blockchain in financial services, usage of digital assets and alternative finance. At the same time, a fast-growing FinTech industry requires talents that are equipped with financial skills, digital skills, and data analytics skills for them to stay through new roles such as FinTech specialists and business data analysts within the industry. The Private Higher Education Institution (IPTS) has been slow to offer FinTech programmes with only a few universities offering such courses. Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation (APU) understood the importance of FinTech knowledge for Finance graduates and was the first university in the country to offer both undergraduate and postgraduate FinTech programmes. More recently with the likes of Taylors have also ventured into offering FinTech related programmes. Some universities both public and private are incorporating the FinTech module in their Finance programmes.
APU also became the first and only university to sign a pact with the FinTech Association of Malaysia (FAOM) in March 2020. This new partnership opened a whole window of opportunities as APU’s FinTech students are exposed to career and internship opportunities with FAOM members, which include leading banks, financial institutions and FinTech platforms. Industry experts from FAOM are also providing inputs in enhancing the programme comprising key areas of FinTech, namely digital currencies, blockchain technologies, crowdfunding, Robo-advisory and entrepreneurial finance. For a vibrant FinTech ecosystem, IPTS must work closely with the FinTech industry players and development agencies like Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) to create awareness and knowledge transfer among Malaysians as well as to produce the next generation of FinTech experts and founders. FinTech knowledge is becoming an important aspect of education for the digital age as the increased sophistication of FinTech products and services (like NFTs and BNPL) need more awareness among the customers. In addition to being aware of these innovative financial products, users should also be able to compare the pros and cons of each available product.
In conclusion, FinTech is not only the future of finance, it’s already here and it will transform the way we transact and interact with the financial world. Education and awareness is the key for sustained growth of the FinTech ecosystem.
Dr Nafis is currently working as a Professor of Finance and Head of School of Accounting and Finance at Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation (APU). He previously served as an Associate Professor of Finance at Henley Business School Malaysia, University of Reading Malaysia and at Nottingham University Business School (NUBS) in the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC). He is also a research affiliate of Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF) at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge and contributes to global reports on Fintech, Alternative Finance and Fintech Regulation.
He has published over 40 peer-reviewed in leading journals including The World Economy, Emerging Markets Review, Pacific-Basin Finance Journal, Journal of Asset Management, Journal of Banking Regulation, Review of Islamic Economics and Journal of Financial Services Marketing among others. He has also co-authored nine books and numerous book chapters on Fintech and Islamic Finance. As a frequent traveller, he has given lectures on finance and Islamic finance across the world, including Harvard Islamic Finance Forum at Harvard Law School; a Gulf Research Meeting at Cambridge University, UK; Durham University Summer School; Seoul International Finance Conference (SIFIC); World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF); OIC Asia Trade and Economic Forum, Central bank of Turkey among others.
Dr Nafis has served as a visiting Professor/Associate Professor at various universities in the UK and Indonesia. He was featured as a Professor of the Month by Financial Times (FT) in 2014 and received an award for Upcoming Personality in Islamic Finance in 2016 presented by Global Islamic Finance Awards (GIFA) and hosted by the Indonesian government. He is an avid writer and contributes regularly to mainstream newspapers, economic forums and professional outlets like WEF, Huffington Post, The Edge, The Conversation among others. He is among the world top 100 influencers in Fintech and top 5 amongst Regtech influencers. He can be followed at https://twitter.com/nafisalam