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13 May, 2014

Asia’s Growing Imbalance Chasm: Excessive Prosperity, Grinding Poverty

By Karl Wilson

Sydney (China Daily), 2014-05-12 – Asia’s affluent middle class is rising rapidly as wealth in China is set to overtake Japan’s by 2015. No matter how you try to measure it, Asians are becoming wealthier. Fly into any capital city in the region and at once you will be struck by the display of wealth. From flashy condominiums to shopping precincts that cater to the surging middle class, Asia’s affluent are growing.

It has been estimated by HSBC that by 2015 financial wealth in China will overtake Japan’s, while emerging Asia is on course to eclipse the United States. Singapore is being tipped to overtake Switzerland as the wealth capital of the world within this decade.

The value of China’s residential real estate has now surged past Japan’s while Chinese investors have become the biggest foreign buyers of apartments in New York, Sydney and London.

Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research with HSBC, says it is hard to overlook Asia’s rising wealth.

He does make the point, however, that not everyone in Asia is reveling in new-found wealth. “Amid all the hype, it’s often forgotten that the majority of people in the region continue to live in poverty, with those fancy bags, let alone more basic necessities, still a distant dream,” Neumann says.

Abhineet Kaul, principal consultant with Frost & Sullivan, says that in any capitalistic society, “some inequality driven by innovation, growth and investment is healthy as it rewards individual initiative and enterprise”.

“However, this growing chasm is a concern for Asia because on the one hand, this divide is an outcome of economic growth, yet on the other the region remains home to more than 1.7 billion surviving in poverty,” he tells China Daily. “As history has shown, extreme wealth inequality can often precipitate social instability and it has been at the heart of political upheavals.”

In the Philippines, for example, it has been estimated that just 40 of the country’s richest families account for an estimated 76 percent of the country’s GDP.

The top 40 account for 34 percent of the GDP in Thailand, 5.6 percent in Malaysia and 2.8 percent in Japan.

Even if prosperity is, so far, only enjoyed by a small sliver of local populations, the rise of Asian wealth that powers those luxury sales has nevertheless been stupendous.

“How rich the region has become exactly is hard to say – and it’s even more difficult to say with precision how the wealth is distributed among individuals,” Neumann says.

According to the Asia-Pacific Wealth Report 2013 by the Royal Bank of Canada and French multinational Capgemini, the total wealth of high net-worth individuals in the region – defined as those with investable assets of $1 million and above – is expected to rise to $15.9 trillion by 2015 compared with $12 trillion in 2012.

Wealth of the equivalent group of individuals in North America stood at $12.7 trillion in 2012.

Deloitte estimates that 3 billion people in Asia will have joined the middle class by 2030, and by 2050 the region will account for more than half of the world’s financial assets.

Keith Pogson, head of assurance practice for banking and capital markets with EY, says geographical and cultural differences throughout Asia make it difficult to draw similarities.

“But we know Asia is growing economically and that is driving an expanding and wealthy middle class,” he says.

So where do Asia’s wealthy spend their money?

In recent years, spending in the region has increased on cars, boats, private jets, luxury goods and property, and investments with wealth managers have increased in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Frost & Sullivan’s Kaul says “the exact luxury spending mix varies depending on the specific nationality in question.”

“For example, according to one report, the Singaporean wealthy allocate about a quarter of their wealth in real estate compared to about a fifth for Hong Kong’s wealthy,” he says.

In a report this week, Reuters said that marina developers in Southeast Asia are “racing to build berths to address the latest problem vexing Asia’s rapidly growing ranks of ultra-rich: Insufficient parking lots for their superyachts”.

The news agency reported that yacht sales in Asia currently account for 9 percent of the global market share, according to consultancy Wealth-X.

“While the number falls behind North America’s 44 percent and Europe’s 34 percent, industry experts expect sales to pick up rapidly within the next few years as the number of multi-millionaires in the region increases,” the report said.

Reuters added that the shortage is most acute in Hong Kong and Singapore where space, whether on land or on water, is scarce and the number of multi-millionaires is among the highest in the world.

“Singapore’s ONE15 Marina Club, where monthly berth rentals cost S$10,000 ($7,950) for a 40-meter boat, is currently at full capacity. Hong Kong’s Discovery Bay Marina Club, where berth rentals start at S$6,000 for a similar sized yacht, is also full,” Reuters added.

Last year the fine art auction house Christie’s launched an advisory service, aimed primarily at China’s superrich, who want to buy vineyards in the world’s leading wine-producing nations.

Martin Roll, one of the region’s leading brand specialists, believes luxury in Asia means “you have arrived.”

“It’s a sign of status,” he says. “It is very different to the Western world where a luxury-brand bag or wristwatch is an expression of your inner self. In other words, you don’t buy a Louis Vuitton bag or Dunhill watch to impress people – you buy a luxury brand because you like it.”

Roll says the Asia-Pacific region will continue to drive the world’s luxury market for the “foreseeable future”.

In Singapore, for example, the sale of luxury goods is expected to reach S$2.7 billion this year, up by 6.6 percent from last year, according to research data firm Euromonitor International.

“From one-of-a-kind watches made with parts of a Formula One car, to one where all movements of the watch are made from solid gold – retailers say price is usually not an issue for their clients,” Channel News Asia says in a report.

“One of the most expensive timepieces at E’Collezione on Singapore’s Orchard Road is a Julien Coudray watch that is retailing for S$230,000. But not only can customers buy the watches here, they can also shop for a new car to go with that watch as well,” the report says.

The distributor of Lamborghini in Singapore started bringing in luxury watches by deLaCour more than a year ago to close a gap in the market.

“Eurosports Global has limited deLaCour timepieces that retail at S$1 million, but it says the price range for customized pieces really depends on the customer’s request,” CNA says.

The Economist Intelligence Unit says that Asia will account for more than half of the world’s luxury goods market within a decade.

“Fears of a slowdown have been heightened recently by China’s crackdown on displays of wealth, and Japan’s shifting exchange rate,” Jon Copestake, chief retail and consumer goods analyst at the EIU, tells London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

“But even in this climate, some luxury firms have continued to deliver strong sales,” he says. “With Europe stagnating and North America subdued, the focus is firmly on Asia’s potential.”

The EIU says India will become a “key battleground for luxury brands as the retail market opens up to foreign investment”.

A wealthy elite has also emerged in Indonesia on the back of the global commodities boom, while Malaysia and Thailand are becoming shopping destinations with the former benefiting from low import duties on luxury goods, the EIU says.

Juan Manuel Mendoza, head of Asian equities at Credit Suisse Asset Management, says in a report to clients that the Southeast Asia luxury market is growing at a similar pace to the Chinese market.

“It is a quarter of the size of the Chinese market but it is making a significant contribution to global luxury goods spending,” he says.

Mendoza adds that luxury malls in cities like Bangkok are rising and growing at 25 percent annually with several new luxury developments expected to come up within the next three years.

“In fact, Thailand is planning to allow Chinese tourists to enter the popular holiday destination without tourist visas and, at the same time, will significantly cut import duties for luxury brands, helping it compete with places like Hong Kong and Macao in the future,” Mendoza concludes.