The coronavirus pandemic has magnified and exposed social imbalances in the region – underscoring the importance of financial inclusion as well as environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG). Companies focused on addressing shortcomings in these societal aspects may communicate their interests to socially responsible investors.
What a difference a year makes in the way that conversations on ESG – and its potential implementation – are playing out in the Asia-Pacific region.
Much of the focus in 2019 was on the themes of ESG. The bushfires that ravaged Australia and the heavy haze that enveloped many nations in Southeast pushed climate change, deforestation and pollution to the top of the agenda of many investors and market participants.
Governance became a major ESG talking point too in 2019. The attention on disclosure and transparency intensified on the back of scandals surrounding Asia’s largest and most prominent corporations, such as Nissan and the automaker’s senior management, as well as charges of malfeasance against former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak over billions of dollars missing from the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.
Fast forward to 2020, and the world is facing the specter of social distancing, lockdowns, deserted airports and empty supermarket shelves – developments that could become the new normal depending on how the unfolding pandemic evolves.
While the health-, economic- and social crisis is creating untold strain on governments, businesses and individuals, it is also placing greater scrutiny on the social impact of corporate activity – on issues like financial inclusion, gender equality and labor management – under the watchful eyes of the general public, policymakers and, just as significantly, the growing ranks of ESG and socially responsible investors.
Philanthropy has been a popular way of returning the favor to society, but charity begins at home as the saying goes. Corporate commitment to one’s own staff amid a crisis may help a rare few companies stand out from the crowd in terms of social responsibility. Take the declaration by Lululemon and Microsoft to support their staff with regular pay even as other companies were announcing layoffs and salary cuts across the world.
Perhaps only companies with sufficient financial strength have the luxury and wherewithal to do this. However, in this new paradigm, it may be a discussion worth having by management and shareholders in the chase for financial returns.
The billions of Asians under government lockdowns, staying and working from home ushered in a boom in online services and home deliveries. Ride-hailing and delivery drivers across Asia have become the unsung heroes facilitating daily necessities, connecting consumers with their purchases, destination or dinner. The latter, along with temps and freelancers, struggling with second or third jobs, form part of the so-called informal workforce that lacks the safety net of steady pay checks, health and home insurance, loans or financial services.
This situation becomes even starker in countries such as India, where more than 400 million informal workers or 90 percent of the total workforce face increasingly challenging conditions wrought by the pandemic.
With concerns of rising defaults and bankruptcies, informal workers as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs) face a funding squeeze as banks and other traditional financing firms cut back. As it is, only a third of SMEs in Southeast Asia, for example, have access to loans and credit lines – limiting their potential for growth and scale, according to a report by Singapore’s Economic Development Board. Even so, some banks, such as Singapore’s United Overseas Bank, have stepped up to the plate to become more inclusive in their lending practices – allocating S$3 (US$37.15) billion for its affected clients, in particular SMEs.
Asian governments have already taken notice. Financial inclusion has become a key objective for Singapore’s fintech aspirations, and a prerequisite for any company that wants to attain a virtual baking license in Hong Kong. Alibaba’s Ant Financial, ride-hailing group Grab and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, have cast their hats into the ring for digital banking licenses in Singapore. More disruptors like them would certainly be welcome to serve the more than 1 billion people in Asia that the World Bank defines as the “unbanked”.
The big emerging markets in Asia, such as India and Indonesia, with large unbanked populations would benefit in areas such as payments, fund transfers and micro-loans for farmers, small borrowers and women’s groups. Technology could become the important enabler in these inclusive initiatives.
Fintech firms can leverage on the power of artificial intelligence, analytics, risk management, credit verification and scoring to mitigate the lack of information and collateral in these markets.
CEO of Fitch Learning, a global provider of learning resources and solutions for the financial services industry. Fitch Learning is part of Fitch Group.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.