WeLab takes its virtual banking battle to Hong Kong’s bricks-and-mortar lenders with higher rates, rebates in opening salvo

Hong Kong’s newest virtual bank is seeking a slice of the city’s banking business by stirring up competition at a time when the Covid-19 outbreak is driving more consumers and businesses to online platforms.

WeLab Bank opened for business today after a three-month trial by dangling a 4.5 per cent annual rate on deposits from as little as HK$10 (US$1.30), it said on its debut. The firm will also offer a juicy time-limited 8 per cent rebate on customer spending.

The firm is the third of eight virtual banks seeking to chip away at market leaders HSBC and Standard Chartered’s mainstay businesses, after ZA Bank and Airstar Bank. They are, however, entering an overcrowded marketplace, with 155 traditional lenders serving a city of 7.5 million people.

“The Covid-19 pandemic offers opportunities and challenges,” chief executive Adrian Tse said during an online briefing. “It has forced many people to work and shop from home. Many people are more comfortable using their mobile phones to open an account and conduct banking transactions.”

The heightened competition comes at a difficult time for the incumbent lenders, as a third wave of Covid-19 infections in Hong Kong forced dozens of them to shorten the banking hours at their branches, or temporarily shut them, to help contain the outbreak.

At the same time, they have been plagued by rising provisions for bad debt as the pandemic has caused many borrowers to fall behind with their loan repayments.

Standard Chartered set aside US$611 million in credit impairments last quarter, it said today, versus US$176 million a year earlier.

WeLab chairman Chan Ka-keung, the city’s former Secretary for Financial Services and Treasury, said the firm aims for financial inclusion by extending its 4.5 per cent promotional rates to big and small depositors alike. That, however, is good for the first 10,000 customers with up to HK$50,000 each in placements.

It is also offering a debit card for customers to withdraw cash from more than 2,000 ATM machines maintained by Jetco. The 8 per cent rebate, however, is capped at HK$3,000 worth of spending until the end of August.

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Author: Eleanor Hazelton