As the wealth of Asia-Pacific's high-net-worth individuals continues to swell, so too does the size and reputation of the region's private banking industry. This is leading to speculation about whether its two main hubs – Singapore and Hong Kong – may be growing to such status that one day they will replace Switzerland as the global private banking capital. 

Asia-Pacific is rapidly becoming one of the most exciting regions for private banking in the world. Booming gross domestic product (GDP) growth, expanding private sectors and swelling high-net-worth wealth are making it particularly attractive to global banks. The transformation is such that some market participants are speculating that cities such as Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai could soon threaten Hong Kong’s and Singapore’s private banking duopoly in the region.

But private bankers in these two centres are not worried. Too much work is needed, they say, for centres to catch up. The question they are asking instead is whether Hong Kong and Singapore could themselves challenge Switzerland's long-held status as the premier global private banking hub. Will Asia-Pacific’s aggregate high-net-worth wealth – which is projected to outstrip North America’s in the near future – be sufficient to see Switzerland toppled?

Ahead of the curve

According to the World Wealth Report, jointly produced by consultancy Capgemini and Canada-based RBC Wealth Management, high-net-worth individuals' (HNWI) wealth in Asia-Pacific ($14,200bn in 2013), although still below North America’s ($14,880bn in 2013), is growing at a far quicker pace, and is expected to surpass it in the very near future. Moreover, Asia-Pacific’s HNWI wealth grew the fastest globally, increasing by 18.2% between 2012 and 2013.

“If, for a European client, it took 100 years to get to a certain point, the new wealth takes 10 years [to accumulate],” says Peter Kok, head of private banking clients for Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) at Standard Chartered in Singapore. This is a sentiment echoed by Singapore-based Vikram Malhotra, head of wealth and investment management for south and south-east Asia at Barclays. "There are many private banking clients today who may not have been heard of only five years ago,” he says. 

In a region where the rule of law and capital protection are both largely lacking, Hong Kong and Singapore remain best placed to capitalise on Asia’s swelling wealth, thanks to their solid and transparent regulatory systems, reliable judicial system and wealth of talent. For other financial centres in the region, competing with the offerings of these two established centres will be no easy task.

“As of now there are too many things to catch up on. Singapore and Hong Kong have been ahead of the curve, they have invested early, they are ahead with global standards and regulation,” says Mr Malhotra.

According to Mr Kok, the private banking business is so fragmented by nature – the biggest player has only 10% market share – that there is room for competitors anyway. The only limitation to growth in Asia-Pacific, he says, is finding staff. “It is a very labour-intensive business. A banker might deal with $200m to $300m alone. You would need 4000 relationship managers [RMs] to deal with $1000bn. The offshore business in Switzerland is worth $6500bn, $3000bn of which is local. If this moved to Singapore, you would need 12,000 RMs to deal with it. The manpower is just not there,” he says.

Set in stone

Bankers in Singapore and Hong Kong do not even see China opening up its financial sector as a threat. Mainland financial centres do not provide the same standard of reliable rule of law or access to equally developed capital markets. “Shanghai is a big domestic centre and it is becoming international, but it will take time to replicate the software, the legal framework and the concentration of expertise that a place such as Hong Kong has,” says Bernard Rennell, regional head of global private banking for Asia-Pacific and global head of private wealth solutions at HSBC in Hong Kong.

In Singapore, bankers are especially happy with the local monetary authority’s engagement with financial institutions. “Singapore has a sophisticated, transparent regulatory environment with a two-way dialogue including banks,” says Mr Malhotra.

Michael Benz, global head of private banking at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, says: “Private banking in China is virtually non-existent and those who have achieved a level of wealth need to diversify political or jurisdictional risk."

According to Mr Rennell, there will be more than enough room even if China’s financial centres gain ground. “I think it misses the point when people say Shanghai might overtake Hong Kong. Europe is big enough for London and Frankfurt and it has 400 million people. The US is big enough for New York and Chicago and it has 300 million people... China has 1.3 billion. If Hong Kong ended up being the financial centre only for the Pearl River Delta, it would still have a significant role,” he says.

It is also true that each financial centre focuses on different regions and products – Hong Kong has strong mainland and Taiwan coverage and tends to be more equity and retail protection driven, whereas Singapore works on significant wealth creation in Asean and is largely focused on bonds. 

High net worth individuals

Swiss darling

While it is difficult to deny that Hong Kong and Singapore are making up ground, most Asia-based bankers are still sceptical that either centre could rob Switzerland of its private banking crown. The country's 300 to 400 years of private banking experience makes Switzlerand unique, even if wealth in Asia is set to surpass that in Europe. 

“Based on numbers, Switzerland remains larger, even if you add Singapore and Hong Kong together. In terms of growth rate, the latter two grow much faster. This is not because assets are moving from Switzerland to Asia, but because wealth generation in Asia is so much faster. Look at GDP growth; Europe is basically at 0%,” says Mr Benz.

Although bank secrecy is no longer practiced, confidentiality still plays an important role in the Swiss market. In Asia, however, it is not as much of a priority. “In Asia, clients don’t take confidentiality as seriously. They disclose information on their wealth in front of everybody. People are proud of what they have achieved, it’s in your face. In Switzerland, you won’t see that. You keep it under the hood,” says Mr Kok.

Switzerland has another advantage, in the shape of its large and highly skilled talent pool. “I believe the breadth and depth of financial talent in Switzerland is still unique. That is the most limiting factor in Singapore and Hong Kong,” says Mr Benz.

There are those, including Mr Malhotra, who are more optimistic about Asia's growth. “The recent tax evasion scandal has put pressure on Switzerland. By contrast, the focus on Singapore and Hong Kong has been on wealth management and investment-led propositions. With the wealth growth projected in Asia, we might see [these centres] catch-up or even overtake [Switzerland] in the distant future,” he says.

Trending up

Regardless of whether Hong Kong and Singapore can replace Switzerland as the global wealth hub, there is no denying that Asia's private banking growth is causing a stir in the global market. And, to keep up with this growth, private banks have had to step up their game. Some of the biggest players are transforming their business – experimenting with ways to win new clients, hiring and training employees and even, in some cases, reorganising entire group structures – to cater to the Asian client base, and align themselves with the region's business and social practices. 

Having resumed its global private banking in 2007, Standard Chartered had a reshuffle in its top management positions, which saw, among others, Mr Kok and Mr Benz both joining the private banking business in 2014. They are based in Singapore and Hong Kong, respectively.

Another trend has emerged out of the fact that most large corporates in Asia are family owned – more than 50% of total market capitalisation in Asia is accounted for by family-owned or controlled companies – and private banks in Asia have started scoping for assets under management within their own corporate or commercial clients. “McKinsey research says 75% of business owners want to be banked holistically, on the corporate and private side, by the same institution. Globally, only 37% are. In Hong Kong, it is substantially less than that,” says Mr Rennell.

HSBC's private banking did twice as much business with its own customers in the first half of 2014 than in all of 2013. And figures from Standard Chartered show a similar trend. “Since October 2014, we have seriously started connecting our commercial, corporate and private bank together. It requires a very disciplined, co-ordinated approach, which we call the 'one bank' approach,” says Mr Kok.

His colleague Mr Benz adds: "We have historically dealt with entrepreneurs' lending and trade finance needs in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Offering private banking services for the wealth they earn becomes a natural extension of our work. Our lending-driven product offering interests them a lot."

Barclays is also bringing its corporate and private banking businesses closer. They are now both under its private and corporate bank division.

There is also a discussion being had in many banks about the issue of succession. With most Asian wealth having been created since World War Two, a lot of wealth is in the late first generation or early second generation stage, explains Mr Rennell, and to help cater to this, HSBC has built a large trusts and succession operation. 

“If you talk to Asia's tycoons about what keeps them awake at night, it’s not the return on their investments, business strategy, payments or cash management services. It’s more about 'which of my children is going to take this business over?' or 'how do I organise a transition?' or 'how do I ensure that this doesn't turn into a major conflict',” says Mr Rennell.

People power

Another part of Asian-focused private banks' growth strategies is hiring and nurturing talent. Big players are keen to avoiding poaching RMs from rival banks. A more organic, long-term view on talent makes for better growth, most bankers agree. Mr Rennell says that poaching is not something that he would do at HSBC. “It is just a way to grow market share, which we already have. We are looking for people who can provide first-class service, rather than focusing on whether they can bring in assets under management.” 

Mr Benz is similarly against the tactic of poaching. Among other strategies, he says that he looks for staff from within Standard Chartered itself. 

Barclays is also growing its private banking team. While 2014 was a year of consolidation, the bank wants to expand its front office by 25% in 2015. Unlike most banks, Barclays has expanded in north Asia, a region often perceived to be difficult to break into, due to the regulatory hurdles associated with it. Bankers outside of South Korea or Japan, for instance, are not allowed to contact a client onshore about investments. The client would need to go abroad to discuss any piece of advice.

“Even though they have a very big wealth pool, both countries are unattractive from a private banking perspective,” says Standard Chartered's Mr Benz.

But, Barclays' Mr Malhotra is happy with the progress that the bank has made in the region. “Our brand there is very well recognised. We have reorganised the team, which now includes very senior staff,” he says.

One of the largest growth segments in the Asian private banking market has been the rise of wealth in mainland China. Hong Kong and Singapore have capitalised on this trend given that China has seen considerable growth in its private sector but still has relatively immature capital markets, which offer little in the way of investment opportunities. 

In terms of investment preference, however, real estate remains the priority of clients from mainland China. To begin with, much of this was focused on the market in Singapore. Now, their focus has shifted to London, New York, New Zealand and Australia, says Mr Kok. 

“We have constructed deals in our private equity business where 50 clients from around the world have bought an office block in Manhattan or the Broadgate Centre in London,” says Mr Rennell.

The increasing internationalisation of Asian clients is also having an impact on the way in which private banks are serving them. Just 30 years ago, it was common for a wealthy Asian client's business and family to both be contained within one city or country. Now, businesses and the families themselves are becoming more international, with children studying in different countries and having more than one passport, says Mr Rennell.

This is pushing private banks to upgrade their operating systems to enable quick cross-border trades and transfers. “We want to be booking centre agnostic. You need many complex operating systems to do this,” says Mr Kok.

Flexibility is key to the continued growth of Asia's private banking operations, however, especially given that the growth of this vast market is sprawled across numerous geographies, and predicting where the next big growth opportunities will lie is not easy for the region's private bankers.  

“This whole region is developing fast but Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have the biggest potential for private banking wealth. Philippines and Vietnam are also catching up,” says Mr Kok.

What could help facilitate further growth among Asia's private banks is the unlocking of investment opportunities in Africa. The matching up of Africa's growth and the wealth of Asia's HNWIs presents an exciting challenge, with education seemingly the main obstacle.

Standard Chartered, which has operations in 16 African countries, is one bank looking to unlock this potential. "I am keen to be more exposed to Africa," says Mr Kok. "That is the future of private banking too. But it remains a big unknown that we need to explain to Asian clients. You need education to make investors understand [Africa]."


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