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China's tech boom triggers gold rush for Asia's private bankers

A woman walks past an Alibaba advertisement on a wall in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Chance Chan
A woman walks past an Alibaba advertisement on a wall in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province September 26, 2013. REUTERS/Chance Chan

By Saeed Azhar and Nishant Kumar

SINGAPORE/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Alibaba Group Holding Ltd's planned IPO is set to create a long list of multi-millionaires just from its partners in the company - music to the ears of private bankers seeking to cash in on the wealth created by China's tech sector boom.

While Alibaba's U.S. listing may become the biggest tech IPO in history, it is also just one of more than 120 Chinese tech listings over the past three years.

Combine that with surging share prices for firms such as social messaging giant Tencent Holdings and Internet search provider Baidu Inc, and private banking is having what many in the industry are calling a once in a lifetime opportunity to cultivate China's growing ranks of the super rich.

China already has more millionaires than any other country in Asia except Japan and is likely to have more than 1.3 million by next year - more than double levels five years ago, according to data from Julius Baer.

"Technology globally is one of the key wealth drivers," said Mark Jansen, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "So it is not surprising we are seeing so much wealth being created in China given the size of the domestic market and surge in demand for everything through the digital space."

In response, private banks are beefing up their teams in Hong Kong and Singapore - seen as gateways for offshore Chinese wealth. Asia's biggest wealth manager UBS, for example, has increased its Asia Pacific wealth management staff by 8 percent this year to 1,120.

The tech, media & telecommunications team at the banking unit of Singapore's DBS Group Holdings has also expanded its services to wealth management, in addition to investment banking and corporate banking.

Tee Fong Seng, market area head of Greater China for Credit Suisse's private bank adds that the bank has seen significant growth in its business and number of relationship managers in Greater China in the last year. The number of its relationship managers across Asia-Pacific has grown 20 percent in the last two years, with bulk of those based in Hong Kong and Singapore.

TECH RICHES

The listing of Alibaba, known as China's Amazon - which some have touted as being worth more than $15 billion - is set to elevate Chairman Jack Ma's wealth ranking to among the top five of Forbes' China rich list, up from eighth place in 2013. His 8.9 percent stake in Alibaba is valued at $10.3 billion based on fair value estimates of the company.

Alibaba also has another 27 partners who own "a meaningful level" of equity in the company although precise levels have not been disclosed, and who are expected to become multi-millionaires with the IPO.

Enriching executives and shareholders, the seven tech companies part of the MSCI China index, including Tencent, Lenovo Group Ltd and ZTE Corp have seen their combined market capitalization surge by nearly 75 percent to $149 billion since the start of 2013, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Tencent crossed the $100-billion mark in market capitalization last year, more than doubling in value since listing in 2004. Tencent's founder and CEO Ma Huateng was ranked by Forbes in 2013 as China's fifth-richest man with a net worth of $10.2 billion, while Baidu's Robin Li is ranked number 3.

Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, which generates annual revenue of $35 billion, is another company that private bankers say is likely to be fertile ground for potential clients, even if it doesn't list. The company's shareholders are its 150,000 employees.

NEW BREED

The young, highly educated and globally mobile tech sector millionaires are also proving to be refreshing for bankers used to Asian clients who mainly stick to areas they are good at. They are more measured in their returns expectations and appreciative of global diversification and asset allocation.

Compared to those who have made their money from real estate or mining sectors, tech millionaires "are more interested in new ideas, people, talent, angel investments," said Philippe Legrand, chief executive of London & Capital Asia.

But they are also far more conservative than their flashy counterparts in the Silicon Valley, preferring to put money in wealth preservation financial assets and in Chinese-speaking cities.

Property investments in Singapore are one such example - buyers from China represented just under a third of all foreign buyers last year, up from 15 percent in 2009.

These new millionaires also tend to be a much more closely knitted group of people and as a result, bankers are tapping clients through trusted referrals most of the time.

Bankers say their immediate challenge is to ensure these tycoons become cash rich rather than just paper-rich with the bulk of their wealth locked in their companies. To that end, they are recommending options such as financing against shares so they have enough cash to invest in other assets.

"They are not going to be cash rich overnight. They are going to be stock rich," Tan Su Shan, group head of consumer banking and wealth management at DBS Bank said in an interview in Singapore.

"Most of them will stay with the stock and they will have to work with the banks who are willing to take a view on providing liquidity," she said.

(Additional reporting by Elzio Barreto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Edwina Gibbs)

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