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HKMA approves eight virtual banks

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) reportedly approved eight virtual banking licence recipients recently, opening the door for FinTech companies to enter the banking industry.

A counsel at an American law firm in Hong Kong stated that virtual banks, like conventional “bricks and mortar” banks, were subject to the Banking Ordinance, it’s subsidiary legislation, the HKMA’s Supervisory Policy Manual and the codes, guidelines and circulars issued by the HKMA.

The main difference is that virtual banks can take advantage of the HKMA’s recently updated Guideline on the Authorization of Virtual Banks, which sets out certain principles that the HKMA will take into account in deciding whether to authorize a virtual bank applying to conduct banking business in Hong Kong.

In short, some of the authorization criteria for becoming licensed as a virtual bank are in some ways less arduous than the criteria for becoming a conventional bank with physical branches.

The most obvious difference is that virtual banks are not required to maintain physical branches, although they must maintain a physical presence in Hong Kong, to interface with the HKMA and with customers, to deal with their enquiries or complaints.

This is perhaps the most significant feature of the new regime is that virtual banks are not required to be majority-owned by a regulated financial institution, meaning that non-financial institution companies, for example, technology and e-commerce companies, can become majority shareholders of virtual banks. In contrast, the HKMA’s policy in relation to conventional banks is that they should be majority-owned by a bank or other type of regulated financial institution.

By opening up the Hong Kong banking market to non-financial institution players, the HKMA aims to promote fintech and innovation in the local banking industry, while also offering new customer experiences in the retail market.

The eight fintech companies that obtained the virtual bank licences include banks, fintech firms and other FinTech ventures.

It was noted that given the utmost importance of stability of the Hong Kong banking sector, and public confidence, and noting the perceived higher risks of virtual banks in the initial years of operations, it is also not surprising to see that most of the licensees are backed by strong parents and shareholders who are financial institutions themselves or tech giants who have strong financial capabilities.

The HKMA’s Guideline on Authorization of Virtual Banks clearly sets out the HKMA’s policy objectives. The development of virtual banks is to promote the application of financial technology and innovation in Hong Kong, to offer a new kind of customer experience, and to help promote financial inclusion, including the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

It is imperative that virtual banks are no different from other fully licensed banks; they must satisfy the minimum criteria for authorization in the Seventh Schedule to the Banking Ordinance. Specifically, the HKMA must be satisfied that the controllers of the virtual banks are fit and proper persons.

In the context of virtual banks, the HKMA made clear that ownership is important given the higher risks for the initial years of operations of these new ventures. Hence, the HKMA has indicated that parent companies of a virtual bank must be committed to, and be capable of, providing strong financial, technology and other support to the virtual bank when necessary.

This is also evident in the attention that the HKMA pays to the credibility and viability of a bank’s business plan, and the requirement for a virtual bank to have an exit plan in case it’s business models turns out to be unsuccessful.

Thus, the HKMA and other governmental agencies are working to create an environment that is more conducive to the current era of financial transactions. The steps being taken are in line with the government’s goals of being a financial hub and a smart city driven by digital transformation.

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