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Reveling in good fortune of middle class

Publication Date : 12-05-2014


By the end of this decade Singapore is expected to dislodge Switzerland as the wealth management capital of the world.

And it is not hard to see why.

Asia's new rich are growing at a staggering rate, spurred on by the economic rise of China and its knock-on effect throughout the region creating a new, rich middle class.

Asians with at least US$1 million in disposable income are expected to see their combined wealth climb to $15.9 trillion by 2015 from $12 trillion in 2012, according to the Asia-Pacific Wealth Report 2013 by Royal Bank of Canada and French multinational Capgemini.

Reuters recently quoted Brookings Institution scholar Homi Kharas as saying the "old world" middle class will, in time, shrink from 50 per cent of the world's total to around 22 per cent.

Kharas went on to say rapid growth in China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia will cause Asia's share of the new middle class to more than double from its current 30 per cent.

By 2030, Asia will host 64 perc ent of the global middle class and account for over 40 per cent of global middle-class consumption.

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, says in a blog post, "The size of (Asia's middle class) currently stands at 500 million and will mushroom to 1.75 billion by 2020 - more than a threefold increase in just seven years."

"The world has never seen anything like this before; it's probably one of the biggest seismic shifts in history," Mahbubani added.

Boston Consulting Group says that while the "old money" of North America and Europe are still the wealthiest regions, accounting for $43.3 trillion and $35.8 trillion of private wealth, the Asia-Pacific region (excluding Japan) is fast catching up at $28 trillion in 2012 - up nearly 14 per cent on the previous year. Data for 2013 is not due out until later this year.

Consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that Singapore could dislodge Switzerland as early as 2015 as the world's wealth capital centre.

Others like WealthInsight, an industry research group, is not as bullish, saying Singapore is expected to outstrip Switzerland by 2020 as the world's leading wealth management centre.

Analysts say the reason for such projections is obvious - more wealth is being created in Asia and it is being created faster than anywhere else in the world. But not everyone is convinced.

Patrick Odier, chairman of the Swiss Bankers Association, says he does not see Singapore as a threat to Switzerland's private banking.

Singapore is a crowded market, with banks chasing a community of largely Asian clients who are less interested in complete secrecy - as has been the case in Europe - but more in achieving yield.

"It seems pretty obvious that in time Singapore will overtake Switzerland," says Keith Pogson, head of assurance practice for banking and capital markets with EY.

"When that will happen I don't think any one can predict with any degree of certainty. But it will happen," he tells China Daily Asia Weekly.

Pogson says there are different dynamics at play when discussing Singapore becoming the world's leading wealth management centre.

"In recent years we have seen increased transparency and regulation globally around financial services," he says.

"(This has created) a realignment within the banking sector and a debate about private banking.

"Private banking has always been about secrecy. High-net-worth customers were assured complete discretion and above all their privacy was protected by the bank."

In the past, private banks have also been associated with other, less savory aspects of banking such as tax avoidance and money laundering, he adds.

"Now they have to fully disclose who is doing what and where, added to which you now have cross-border disclosure. So there is no secrecy anymore."

Pogson says the spectrum has now changed.

Traditionally there have been three wealth centres - Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore. Switzerland is no longer secret and has been forced to open up while the Asian centres accumulate the wealth that is being generated.

"When you look at what is happening in terms of wealth accumulation and wealth growth in Asia, it is only a matter of time before Singapore takes the lead," Pogson says.

UBS, Switzerland's biggest bank, has already recognised Asia as its priority growth area.

According to a report by Bloomberg, the bank intends to hire 88 advisers this year just to service its rich Asian clients.

Bloomberg says assets at UBS wealth management business in the region jumped 38 per cent in the past two years.

Credit Suisse, which is facing an investigation into how it helped tax evasion in the US, is looking to increase private banking services to its wealthiest clients in emerging markets, and in particular Asia.

Switzerland's second-biggest bank is approaching Asia differently from second- or third-generation wealth in the US or Europe, according to Francesco de Ferrari, managing director and head of the bank's private banking division.

"In Asia, a lot more of the wealth is generated by first-generation entrepreneurs who are optimistic about the returns their businesses will yield," de Ferrari says. "The last thing you want from a bank is for them to ask you to put funds to buy something with them. You actually want them to give you money."

When the entrepreneur becomes successful, de Ferrari says, the bank will aim to raise equity or debt for the business and build a personal treasure chest on the side.

"The next stage is to help structure that wealth to pass on to heirs and preserve the business," he adds.

A report by the Financial Times says: "In Singapore alone, the accumulation of wealth - and the speed with which it has happened - has been staggering."


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