As the rich in Europe and the US dodge tax and defend unpopular pay rises, wealth creation in Asia looks relatively effortless. Someone living in a smart part of Singapore, for example, is likely to live next to, on top of, or below a millionaire. The country has the highest density of dollar millionaire households in the world. That makes Singapore’s banks, DBS, OCBC and UOB, well connected enough to benefit.
Private wealth in Asia excluding Japan grew more than five times faster than the 2 per cent global average in 2011, to $24tn, or a fifth of global wealth, according to Boston Consulting Group. That proportion is projected to grow to 27 per cent by 2016.
Singapore’s location, regulated economy and favourable tax system have helped its banks to gain share. Growth in assets under management at the private banking divisions of DBS, OCBC and UOB outpaced the 11 per cent growth in regional private wealth in 2011. OCBC has made some of the biggest inroads, helped by its purchase of ING’s Asian wealth business in 2009, which it used to create Bank of Singapore. The private bank’s AUM jumped by 25 per cent from a year ago to $35bn in the first quarter. And as Singapore’s banks face a slowdown and shrinking spreads in regional trade finance, wealth management is an important source of growth.
Yet private banking is still a small part of their overall business. It accounts for 30 per cent of revenues at OCBC, compared with less than a 10th at DBS and UOB, but it includes sales from its life assurance arm Great Eastern Holdings. Moreover, staff and compliance costs are a challenge. The cost-to-income ratios of Asia’s wealth managers hit 80 per cent in 2011, BCG estimates – 4 percentage points above offshore managers in Europe. Singapore’s advantages make for rich pickings, but watch to whom they accrue.