Hong Kong gains strength as private-wealth hub

Hong Kong looks to be growing in importance as a wealth-management centre, as regional private-banking heads set up shop and more firms seek banking licences.
Hong Kong gains strength as private-wealth hub

"It appears that Hong Kong is closing in on the heels of Singapore for being a wealth-management hub. After a period of relative inactivity for most of 2008/9, many banks are currently busy recruiting for priority private bankers."

That was a conclusion arrived at in July by recruitment firm Robert Walters in its first-half financial-markets report. And it might surprise some, given that Singapore is often dubbed 'the Switzerland of Asia' for its relatively light regulation, low taxation, robust legal system and high level of confidentiality, among other things.

Of course, those factors are also common to Hong Kong, and the territory has the added benefit of its proximity to mainland China to set against Singapore's location in the heart of Southeast Asia and its closeness to India.

But a growing number of regional and even global private-banking heads -- JP Morgan's Douglas Wurth and Andrew Cohen, Nick Pollard of RBS Coutts, and HSBC's Chris Meares, for instance -- have been relocating to Hong Kong, which seems to reinforce the Robert Walters view.

Moreover, there's a growing trend for private banks with a local rep office in Hong Kong to apply for a full banking licence, says Charles Rixon, director of wealth management at executive search firm the Laurus Group in Hong Kong. Among other things, that would allow those firms to book assets in Hong Kong, he adds, and is a clear indication they want to improve their platform and services for clients in the territory.

Rixon says he's aware of at least six wealth-management firms that look set to receive banking licences from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in the coming few months.

Still, Hong Kong and Singapore will remain important hubs, argue private bankers. "There's always room for both," says Hanspeter Brunner, Asia chief executive at Swiss private bank BSI in Singapore. "Both locations are very well regulated, both are tightening their rules and both have established and developing talent."

The two markets have always competed in the financial sector, adds Brunner, so the situation will be no different in the wealth-management market -- but it's very friendly competition.

"People in both places are fully aware that it is the geographical proximity and cultural proximity of other markets that supports the business [in each]," he says, pointing to the large number of South Asians that form 30% of the population in Singapore. Meanwhile, Hong Kong will continue as a very important hub for Greater China. 

"Hong Kong is a more 'pure China' place than Singapore," says Brunner. "In a way they complement each other; they are suited to each other's opportunities. And 10 years down the road, both will continue to be important."

He says he would be surprised if either were to emerge as a winner in terms of wealth management over the other, but one thing is certain: in a decade's time, both will be massively bigger than they are today.

Both jurisdictions have their specialties and attractions, agrees Serge Forti, Asia-Pacific chief executive at BNP Paribas Wealth Management in Singapore. The Lion City used to be largely an international banking centre, but has become a bit more balanced through building up its own domestic assets, launching more IPOs, attracting more rich people and creating more wealth onshore, he says. Of course, it will retain a natural attraction as an international wealth centre, adds Forti.

However, the fact that Singapore is a slightly less expensive place for financial institutions to set up is significant, he says. That's why most private banks have their Asia centre there, including their operations and IT hub, says Forti, and why Singapore private-bank offices are often much larger than those in Hong Kong in terms of staff.

Hong Kong is a "lighter but very aggressive marketing unit", he adds, and is large in terms of salespeople and assets under management relative to the overall wealth-management headcount. "The proximity of China is one big reason for this set-up."

When it comes to regulatory moves, each jurisdiction watches the other very carefully, he says, and both are very adaptive. "If one makes a move that's positive for the industry, one will inevitably make a similar change," says Forti. "And if one makes a move that's negative, the other will carefully consider whether it needs to follow suit."

Hence, it's unlikely that one would get significantly looser or tighter than the other in terms of regulations, he says, and nor would it make sense for it to do so. After all, "it's nice to have two centres," adds Forti. "It means you can fulfil almost all that your customer can ask for."

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