Bringing Dollar Digital Currency to Asia’s Financial Infrastructure
- Circle Singapore has received a Major Payments Institution License from the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). We are excited about the potential in Asia Pacific and the future of stablecoins in the region.
- Asia is an early adopter of digital assets. Today, digital asset adoption in Asia is higher than North America and Western Europe. Asia accounts for 29% of digital currency value received (vs 19% in North America and 22% in Western Europe).1
- Forward-thinking governments have successfully nurtured new digital financial infrastructure that can move value with greater speed, less cost and more transparency, positioning both businesses and individuals to benefit.
Licensed in Singapore to bring dollar digital currency to Asia
We are proud to share that Circle Singapore has received a Major Payments Institution License from the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). The license allows Circle Singapore to offer digital payment token services along with cross-border money transfer services and domestic money transfer services in the city-state via its various products and services, including the Circle Account, which allows institutional customers access to USDC – a dollar digital currency issued by Circle – and its supporting infrastructure. We are excited about the potential in Asia Pacific and the future of stablecoins in the region.
Our excitement is shaped by three distinct areas where we already see significant momentum – user behavior, partner and ecosystem readiness, and product market fit for stablecoins for cross-border commercial payments, trade finance and remittances. Asia Pacific’s forward-thinking leaders across the public and private sectors are poised to drive the next cycle of digital innovation by bringing the power of Web3 and digital assets to businesses and consumers.
Let’s take a look at the near-term roadmap.
Internet-native users thrive in a tech-forward region
Over the last decade, Asia Pacific has changed the trajectory of the global internet and taken a leading role on the world’s technology stage. The region has incubated and launched a new generation of innovative businesses built on bringing unprecedented convenience and connectivity to billions of people.
Southeast Asia by the numbers
Mobile-first and wallet ready
Category-defining companies have risen up by evolving beyond Silicon Valley-style services to reshape both commerce and society – especially when it comes to embracing internet-based applications and financial services. Across the region, nearly half of Asia Pacific’s 1.8 billion online population regularly uses an e-wallet.2
While much of the focus has been on the rise of Chinese superapps, it is critical to widen the aperture beyond China to highlight Asia’s broader digital developments and the connections they enable elsewhere throughout the region.
- Southeast Asia, with a population of 600 million people (nearly double of the United States) that skews young, educated, increasingly affluent and tech savvy, is one of Asia Pacific’s most dynamic sub-regions. By 2030, Southeast Asia’s economy could reach $600 billion to $1 trillion in gross merchandise value.3 To put this in perspective, Amazon’s total international retail sales were $118 billion in 2022.4 E-wallet penetration among Southeast Asia’s unbanked could reach 58% by 2025.5
- Grab, headquartered in Singapore, and GoTo, headquartered in Indonesia, exemplify the convergence of these trends in demographics and technology. The two regional superapps have amassed more than 100 million users6,7 by bringing together on-demand logistics, digital financial services and e-commerce for a mobile-first population.
- Elsewhere in the region, South Korea-based Toss, a financial services superapp, has gathered more than 21 million subscribers8 (or 41% of the country’s total population) while continually expanding its range of services.9 PhonePe, a Walmart-backed digital payments app in India, has about 435 million registered users – almost a third of the country’s 1.4 billion people.10
Ahead of the curve on digital asset adoption
- Asia is an early adopter of digital assets. Today, digital asset adoption in Asia is higher than North America and Western Europe. Asia accounts for 29% of digital currency value received (vs. 19% in North America and 22% in Western Europe).11
- While Southeast Asia stands out, India and Japan aren’t far behind. The high penetration of digital assets in the region is driven by challenges of the legacy infrastructure and a large unbanked population as well as strong income-generation opportunities.12
An ecosystem ready for the next phase
The rapid advance of private sector innovation heavily aligns with mandates set forth several years ago in many Asia Pacific jurisdictions that began steering toward a cashless society. Forward-thinking governments have successfully nurtured new digital financial infrastructure that can move value with greater speed, less cost and more transparency, positioning both businesses and individuals to benefit.
Regulators are driving digital financial innovation
While the U.S. is just now preparing to deploy its first real-time payments system – FedNow – in July 2023, several Asian economies have already established 24/7/365 real-time payments systems that have achieved significant scale and volume, both domestically and across borders.
- India launched its Unified Payments Interface (UPI) in 2016. UPI processed 8.7 billion transactions worth $172 billion just in the month of March 2023 alone, on top of 83 billion transactions for full-year 2022.13
- The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) launched PayNow a year later, which is processing over $5.7 billion (SGD $7.6 billion) transactions per month.14
Now, governments in Asia Pacific are enhancing these successful national programs by connecting them with each other to facilitate cross-border, real-time payments across the region.
- In February 2023, the Central Bank of India and the MAS linked UPI and PayNow so users from one country can send funds to another in real-time using just a phone number.15
- This builds off of the successful 2021 connection between PayNow and Thailand’s PromptPay, the world’s first linkage of real-time payment systems.16
- The MAS and Malaysia’s central bank recently announced that travelers will be able to make retail payments by scanning QR codes with mobile number-based, real-time payments by the end of 2023.17
As with the central bank-based, real-time payment systems highlighted above, regulators in Asia Pacific are moving rapidly to adapt to the Web3 evolution.
- The MAS already regulates stablecoin issuers through the Major Payments Institutions licensing regime and is expected to amend regulations to foster stablecoin development so they can be a credible medium of exchange.18
- Hong Kong concluded its first consultation on stablecoins in January 2023 and is expected to implement regulatory arrangements in 2023/24.19
- Japan is expected to revise its Payment Services Act and implement stablecoin regulation at some point in 2023.20
Many other countries in the region are looking at creating a regulatory framework for digital assets broadly and stablecoins in particular, setting the stage for the next phase of digital finance evolution.
The natural evolution toward Web3
As the digital asset industry builds into the next cycle, we expect to see two segments of growth. The first is the Web3-native segment, and the second is the transition of Web2 companies into Web3.
The Web3-native companies will continue to create applications that are built on blockchains with digital assets at their core. Some of these companies will replicate what existing Web2 companies do, but in the blockchain-based Web3 internet layer. Digital asset exchanges, many of which were originally built in Asia, are examples of this. Other Web3-native companies will build completely new applications and change the value structure between platforms and their users and creators. Axie Infinity is an example of this phenomenon.
Having already seen the transition into Web2, Asian policymakers and existing Web2 companies are attempting to leapfrog the innovation curve by preparing their markets and businesses to embrace Web3. As an example, Japan’s Democratic Liberal Party has formed a Web3 Project Team and published a whitepaper to advance the country’s transition. Many e-commerce businesses and superapps in the region are already exploring how to bring Web3 services – including blockchain-powered wallets and stablecoins – into their offerings.
Developers from Asia are ready and eager. The region is home to 19% of Web3 developers (vs. 29% in the US) and is the fastest growing region by market share between 2017 and 2022.21 Local developers have launched stablecoins denominated in Vietnamese Dong, Singaporean Dollars, Japanese Yen, and Australian Dollars among others. It is natural for these developers, who built many of the early digital asset exchanges, to continue to build new applications and support the Web2 to Web3 transition.
The next phase of digital finance evolution
Recent developments in digital finance hold the promise of even greater economic benefits for both businesses and individuals across the region. The emergence of public blockchains and stablecoins – digital currencies with price parity to a government-issued currency – represent the next wave of evolution.
Stablecoins and the blockchains on which they travel offer unparalleled utility as a new, unified infrastructure for payments, commerce and capital markets built directly into the internet. Together, they lay the foundation for a new “internet of money” that enables financial value to move anywhere, at any time, almost instantly, at less cost, in a permissionless way so that everyone with an internet connection can access it.
This infrastructure enables financial value to travel just like email, text, video and other types of internet data – easily, efficiently and at close to zero cost. As more businesses, institutions and people recognize the transformative cost and speed benefits of internet settlement, we expect more existing payments, commerce and trading will shift to this new layer.
Stablecoins can facilitate near-instant, near-free payments in-country, within regions and across the world. In 2022, stablecoins settled about $7 trillion compared to $14 trillion at Visa and Mastercard.22
Circle’s USDC is dollar digital currency that is designed for use around the world, including Asia Pacific. USDC is powering many of the rapid developments in internet-native finance. USDC is native to many blockchains that are designed from the ground up for speed, low costs and high throughput. Here are some settlement speed examples from blockchains that currently offer USDC payments:
USDC blockchain settlement speeds
Not all stablecoins are created equal. Some stablecoins are reserved with riskier assets – such as unidentified government bonds, commercial paper, corporate bonds, loans or digital tokens – or rely on complicated, algorithmic relationships with other digital tokens to try to retain their peg. USDC avoids these complications with its easy-to-understand, straightforward structure.
USDC is backed 100% by highly liquid cash and cash-equivalent assets and is always redeemable 1:1 for US dollars. A portion of the USDC reserve is invested in the Circle Reserve Fund (USDXX), an SEC-regulated money market fund managed by BlackRock. Daily independent third-party reporting on the portfolio is publicly available. A leading global bank, which is subject to some of the highest capital, liquidity, and supervisory requirements in the world, holds substantially all of the cash in the USDC reserve and custodies the Circle Reserve Fund.
As noted earlier, Circle Singapore is licensed in Singapore as a Major Payments Institution. In the U.S., Circle is licensed under the same money transmission regulatory framework as PayPal, Stripe and Apple Pay.
While most stablecoins – including USDC – are dollar-denominated today, we expect more Asia-based currencies to become available in the coming years.
How Circle supports Asia’s digital financial infrastructure
As Circle CPO Nikhil Chandhok and CTO Li Fan point out, the open-source nature of blockchain’s cloud-based financial technology is what gives it its true power. Since the launch of the Ethereum blockchain in 2014, programmable, smart contract-based ledgers have created immense value by giving developers free access to open-source “primitives,” or building blocks for creating new commerce and money applications on the internet.
As a globally available, open-source primitive, USDC is a critical building block for what we view as a brand new global operating system for money. Our vision is to enable developers everywhere – including tech hubs throughout Asia Pacific – to access these building blocks and build out the next wave of financial services that are accessible to anyone, anywhere with a connected device.
Here is a look at key use cases that are ripe for improvement throughout Asia Pacific.
- Cross-border payments: Home to much of the world’s supply chain and information and communication technology (ICT) services, commercial trade in Asia is estimated to be $22.5 trillion in 2022 23, or nearly 65% of the region’s $35 trillion GDP.24 Stablecoins can offer incredible efficiencies for businesses that need to send funds across borders, whether to suppliers or employees. Asian merchants can leverage Web3-enabled digital wallets to hold dollars via USDC while locally denominated stablecoins take shape.
- Trade finance: For trade to take place, many of the region’s small-medium enterprises must secure trade financing such as letters of credit, trade loans, guarantees, and insurance. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the trade finance gap in Asia is about $510 billion.25 Stablecoins like USDC can help plug this gap by offering easier access to dollars over the internet.
- Remittances: $290 billion in remittances flowed into Asia Pacific in 2021, with an average cost of 5.9% to send $200 into the region26 and significant additional friction for recipients who lack bank access. Built on blockchains that can settle globally in near-real time and almost for free, USDC improves on the existing dollar-denominated global remittance network.
These speed and cost advantages are particularly important for the most vulnerable recipients, while leveraging the growth in e-wallet usage among the region’s unbanked. Reducing costs for remittance beneficiaries means more external capital can be put to work in the recipient’s country.
We expect established fintechs can adopt and build with this infrastructure, extending their front-end improvements and beautiful user experiences now that the actual payment rails are accessible to developers. Importantly, businesses and developers can simply bolt this infrastructure onto existing customer interfaces that have already gained significant traction.
As we look into the future, streaming payments, tokenized securities and other real-world assets, and contracts that entitle creators to a share of secondary market sales could be just the start of what’s possible. In the coming years, we strongly anticipate that developers will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible with new uses that blow our minds in ways we can’t even anticipate.
Asia Pacific’s digital-native population armed with digital wallets, partner and ecosystem readiness, and forward-thinking regulatory frameworks will position the region to lead the world in adoption of these and other exciting use cases.
Let’s hear from you
While USDC turns five years old in 2023, we are just at the very beginning of what’s possible. We expect the number of active digital currency wallets to grow significantly in the coming years. Asia Pacific is poised to assume a strong leadership role, helping local businesses extend their competitive advantage while plugging more deeply into the world’s reserve currency. We would love to hear from you. Reach out to us and let’s build together.
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- “The 2022 Geography of Cryptocurrency Report.” Chainalysis.
- “Almost half of Asia Pacific prefers digital payments.” Techwire Asia. Dashveenjit Kaur. February 11, 2021. Retrieved from 5/24/23 from: https://techwireasia.com/2021/02/almost-half-of-asia-pacific-prefers-digital-payments/
- “e-Conomy SEA 2022.” Google, Temasek and Bain & Company. Retrieved from 5/24/23 from: https://services.google.com/fh/files/misc/e_conomy_sea_2022_report.pdf
- Amazon.com, Inc., 10-K Filing for the Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2022. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://d18rn0p25nwr6d.cloudfront.net/CIK-0001018724/d2fde7ee-05f7-419d-9ce8-186de4c96e25.pdf
- “Southeast Asian Consumers Are Driving a Digital Payment Revolution.” BCG. Diego de Sartiges, Aparna Bharadwaj, Imran Khan, Justine Tasiaux, and Patrick Witschi. May 20, 2020. Retrieved from 5/24/23 from: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/southeast-asian-consumers-digital-payment-revolutions
- “2023 Q1 Earnings Call.” Grab. May 2023. Retrieved 6/4/23 from: https://investors.grab.com/static-files/1aa1d216-565d-4595-bccf-effb3265ec51
- “One Enduring Ecosystem.PT GoTo Gojek Tokopedia Tbk. Retrieved 6/4/23 from: https://assets.tokopedia.net/asts/GOTO%20Laporan%20Tahunan%202022.pdf
“Toss, GoTo Compete With Grab for Super App Supremacy in SE Asia.” PYMNTS. March 23, 2022. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://www.pymnts.com/connectedeconomy/2022/toss-goto-compete-grab-super-app-supremacy-southeast-asia/
- “South Korean financial super app Toss closes $405M Series G as valuation rises 7%.” TechCrunch. Kate Park. December 19, 2022. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://techcrunch.com/2022/12/19/south-korean-financial-super-app-toss-closes-405m-series-g-as-valuation-rises-7/
- “PhonePe launches cross-border UPI payments service, says it's India's first”. Business Standard. February 8, 2023. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/phonepe-launches-cross-border-upi-payments-service-says-it-s-india-s-first-123020700573_1.html
- “The 2022 Geography of Cryptocurrency Report.” Chainalysis. https://go.chainalysis.com/geography-of-crypto-2022-report.html
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“PayNow Infographics” Association of Banks in Singapore. September 30, 2021. Retrieved 5/23/24 from: https://abs.org.sg/docs/library/paynow-infographic.pdf.
- “Launch of Real-time Payments between Singapore and India.” Monetary Authority of Singapore. February 21, 2023. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://www.mas.gov.sg/news/media-releases/2023/launch-of-real-time-payments-between-singapore-and-india
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Launch of Cross-border QR Code Payments Connectivity between Singapore and Malaysia.” Monetary Authority of Singapore. March 31, 2023. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://www.mas.gov.sg/news/media-releases/2023/launch-of-cross-border-qr-code-payments-connectivity-between-singapore-and-malaysia
- “MAS proposes measures to reduce risks to consumers from cryptocurrency trading and enhance standards of stablecoin-related activities.” Monetary Authority of Singapore. October 26, 2022. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://www.mas.gov.sg/news/media-releases/2022/mas-proposes-measures-to-reduce-risks-to-consumers-from-cryptocurrency-trading-and-enhance-standards-of-stablecoin-related-activities
- “Conclusion of discussion paper on crypto-assets and stablecoins.” Hong Kong Monetary Authority. January 31, 2023. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://www.hkma.gov.hk/eng/news-and-media/press-releases/2023/01/20230131-9/
- “Japan’s FSA expects to allow certain stablecoins by June 2023.” Cointelegraph. Helen Partz. January 23, 2023. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://cointelegraph.com/news/japan-s-fsa-expects-to-allow-certain-stablecoins-by-june-2023
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- “Remittances to Reach $630 billion in 2022 with Record Flows into Ukraine.” The World Bank. May 11, 2022. Retrieved 5/24/23 from: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/05/11/remittances-to-reach-630-billion-in-2022-with-record-flows-into-ukraine#:~:text=Remittance%20flows%20to%20the%20East,by%202.5%20percent%20in%202021.