Wealth Management in China: New Frontier or Pipe Dream?


As explained on more than one occasion here on ChinaFund.com, tremendous wealth has been built in China since let’s say the Deng Xiaoping reform days. However, we would be painting an incomplete picture of reality by limiting ourselves to the previous statement. In the spirit of precision, we need to make it clear that two distinct dimensions can be identified:

  1. Collective wealth, in other words the “wealth” of China as a whole. And in this respect, the fact that China now represents the world’s #2 economy in terms of nominal GDP speaks for itself. Whether we are highlighting the overall activity of China by analyzing its GDP or referring to some of the most impressive sectors of the Chinese economy in terms of the degree to which they have benefited from investments (infrastructure, for example), it is abundantly clear that China has become a remarkable wealthy nation
  2. Individual wealth, or if you will, asking ourselves if the average Chinese citizen is as let’s say wealthy as China as a whole on a comparative (to the West) basis. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is a resounding “no” at this point. Despite robust GDP growth rates where double-digit YOY increases were the norm up until 2010 and solid single digit increases as of that point, the GDP per capita in China is barely north of $10,000. Compared to Western countries where it tends to be 6-7 higher relatively frequently (6.5 times higher if we are to refer to the United States), let’s just say that while China has caught up to its Western counterparts in terms of nominal GDP, it is still mostly a function of its very high population and the average Chinese citizen still has a fair bit of catching up to do

What are the implications with respect to the wealth management industry?

Is China a promising destination for wealth management experts who are interested in tapping into what is quasi-unanimously referred to as the Chinese gold mine?

In our view, it’s ultimately all a matter of calibrating expectations.

On the one hand, profit opportunities abound to a significant enough degree for us to be more than confident in our statement that in terms of potential, considering China a “new frontier” from a wealth management perspective is not exactly far-fetched. Yes, it is true that the average Chinese citizen isn’t exactly drowning in excess liquidity. However, compared to a few years and especially decades ago, at least the Chinese citizens in question *have* excess liquidity, something which would have indeed been considered nothing more than a pipe dream in the past.

On the other hand, “patience” is the operative word. Simply put, the average Chinese citizen is not yet prepared to become a meaningful consumer of wealth management services. Nor is he let’s say financially sophisticated enough to even think about wealth management and how it might be beneficial (for the most part). We need to understand that for most people, the concept of setting money aside each month and thinking what (if anything) they should be doing with it is still something they are getting accustomed to. Yet despite short-term hiccups, a consistent increase in interest from the average consumer with respect to wealth management services is pretty much inevitable.

What if we move away from the average consumer?

As made clear rather frequently on this website, growth in China can be considered asymmetrical in many respects. And despite what your (more or less) friendly Communist Party of China ideologue might tell you, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has been remarkably successful at creating individual wealth accumulation success stories.

To put it different, while the average Chinese citizen is not exactly in a hurry to read up on wealth management services, quite a few entities have been on the very direct receiving end of China’s economic growth. In some cases completely legitimately, in other cases perhaps less so. At the end of the day, however, the fact remains that a very financially potent Chinese “new money” class has emerged. Individuals who are now wealthy beyond their wildest expectations thanks to a combination between being at the right place at the right time and knowing when to take action, and who in many cases don’t exactly know how to manage their newly-found wealth properly. First-generation prosperity, if you will, with the tremendous potential catering to the needs of this niche comes with.

At the end of the day, the wealth management industry in China is most definitely alive. Whether we are referring to opportunities related to the present (catering to the needs of those who have become asymmetrically wealthy as a result of China’s economic growth success story) or opportunities that have to do with the future (keeping a close eye on the increasingly affluent Chinese middle class, for example), wealth management experts have more than enough opportunities to get and stay busy in China. For professionals willing to accept the shortcomings associated with embracing a domestic wealth management industry which is still in the “Wild West” stages in many respects, China represents a potentially career-defining jurisdiction… to put it mildly.

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