Australian asset managers look to Asia

Australian fund industry executives were in Hong Kong last week with the aim of expanding their business beyond domestic borders.

Back in mid-2008, Hong Kong's Securities & Futures Commission (SFC) and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission signed a deal to facilitate the sale of retail funds to investors in each other's market. But then the financial crisis struck and the agreement fell by the wayside. However, the potential is waiting to be tapped, and some are keen to do just that.

David Thomas, founder and head of Sydney-based Think Global Consulting, is looking to help Australian and Asian asset managers -- and their service providers -- expand their business in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in China and Hong Kong. To that end, he was in Hong Kong last week with a delegation of executives from the Australian fund industry to help promote their products and services. Thomas is also looking to pique interest in the Australia fund market among Asian asset managers. 

Ten firms accompanied him to the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong. They included: Castellan Capital, a boutique fund manager; Equity Trustees, which distributes funds in Australia; fund research house Lonsec; technology provider Iress; Gateway Financial Marketing, which provides consulting services to fund managers; EQ Capital, a venture-capital firm that mainly operates in Australia and China; MGI, a boutique tax and investment advisory firm; and a financial adviser, Tony Virtue of Virtue and Partners.

None of the firms has done any deals as yet, although a lot of discussion is taking place, says Thomas.

Many fund managers could not accompany the delegation this year, but he hopes to bring a bigger group next year -- perhaps a dozen or so asset managers and other financial services firms.

To that end, Thomas plans to set up an Australasian financial forum in Sydney in February and run it on a monthly basis, as a way to communicate with the financial community. "My biggest challenge is getting Australia more engaged in Asia," he says. "I don't see any issue getting Asia involved in Australia -- that's already happening."

"Twenty years ago, less than 5% of Australian domestic investment would find its way offshore," he adds, "but today 30% of all pooled investment goes offshore; a small sliver of that goes to Asia, but I can only see that increasing."

As for attracting interest in Australia from international and regional firms, there are already several big international asset managers present in Australia, says Thomas, such as Aberdeen Asset Management, Schroder Investment Management and Fidelity Investments. However, he has been speaking to the smaller, more local players in the region, promoting Australia as a market for distribution as well as investment.

"Many people are surprised that Australia has bounced out of the global downturn so quickly," says Thomas. "It's very timely to be here with an Australian delegation as there's so much interest in Australia."

He points out four significant attractions of the Australian market. First, the economy is in very good shape, having posted only one quarter of negative returns last year. Another advantage is the country's deep, well regulated market. Thirdly, the agreement between the Australian and Hong Kong regulators makes it easier for the two markets to interact.

In addition, Australia is pushing to become a regional financial services hub. "That's a big, noble ambition and will take a while," says Thomas, "but it means that several challenges to operating there are being addressed, tax being a major one."

On top of those four factors, Australia was, as of late last year, the third biggest mutual fund market in the region, after Japan and only narrowly smaller than China.

Thomas has experience of financial services, wealth management, strategic planning, marketing communications, education and training. He moved to Hong Kong from London in 1987 to set up his own business offering financial planning advice to the investment community. In 1995, he left Hong Kong and moved to Australia, where he has held a number of roles in large and small organisations, including Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

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