Rich Vein, Slim Pickings

The Barclays deal shows Singapore banks' hunger for business in a crowded field.
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Every day, it seems, another bank makes a play for Asia's rich, keen for a foothold in the region with more millionaires than North America.

In January, UBS announced plans to bulk up in China; earlier this week Credit Suisse targeted regional expansion. On Thursday, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. turned up the heat with plans to buy Barclays's Asian wealth arm in a $320 milllion deal.

The challenge for OCBC, Singapore's second-largest bank, is to make the deal work just as the field becomes more crowded and the gains harder to achieve.

Carving Out Asia's Rich

OCBC, Asia's 11th biggest private bank by assets under management, and selected competitors

Source: Asian Private Banker, 2015 Assets Under Management

OCBC beat out two of its hometown rivals to bag the U.K. lender's regional wealth operations, giving it a boost in Hong Kong and Singapore and increasing assets under management at its Bank of Singapore unit by 33.3 percent to $73.3 billion, the bank said. OCBC has been on an acquisition spree, and is keen to expand asset-lite wealth management. Six years ago, it bought ING's Asian private-banking business, and in 2014 acquired Hong Kong's Wing Hang Bank, a family-owned lender with branches in China. 

The Barclays deal will vault OCBC to seventh place, from 11th, in the ranks of Asian private-banking franchises measured by assets under management, according to data from Asian Private Banker -- ahead of Morgan Stanley's wealth arm, but below DBS, Singapore's biggest bank, with $75 billion.

Barclays began expanding its Asian wealth business alongside investment banking after the financial crisis, but remains a small player: It had $18.3 billion in assets under management in Hong Kong and Singapore, according to OCBC. The purchase price is 1.75 percent of that total, a metric deemed fair by analysts at Malaysia's RHB Capital, who say DBS paid a similar amount for Societe Generale's Asian private-banking business in 2014. It's also below the 5.8 percent of assets under management that OCBC paid for ING's Asian banking business in 2010. Regionwide, the Barclays unit oversees $36 billion, Asian Private Banker data show. 

That Singapore banks were on the shortlist to acquire the Barclays unit shows the pressure to expand. The top three institutions in the nation of 5.7 million people -- DBS, OCBC and United Overseas Bank -- have been seeking new markets, especially in private banking as European lenders exit businesses they regard as noncore.

On the Prowl

Acquisitions by Singapore's Big Three banks

Source: Bloomberg

As Gadfly's Andy Mukherjee noted, Singapore banks face a sliding real estate market at home and possible nonperforming loan blowouts from exposure to China and rig-builders. They ought to dominate their domestic private-banking market, at the very least. Singapore is adding millionaires at a faster pace than Hong Kong, according to WealthInsight, though the former British colony and Asian arch-rival still has more of them.

OCBC, like any buyer of private-banking assets, faces challenges. Not all Barclays clients are likely to stay with the new owner. Costs of wealth management in the region are high and spiraling. Rich Asians tend to have several private bankers at different institutions competing for their business, economic growth has slowed, and relationship managers' salaries are rising.

Catching and keeping Asia's next billionaire has become a harder game to play.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Nisha Gopalan in Hong Kong at

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    Paul Sillitoe at

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