HONG KONG • Private bankers are being flooded with inquiries from investors in Hong Kong who are worried about the long-term effects of the city's political crisis.
While the Hong Kong government has shelved the controversial Bill that sparked the latest round of unrest - one that would have allowed criminal suspects to be transferred to the mainland for trial - a new tier of wealthy investors are setting up ways to move their money out of the former British colony more quickly, bankers and wealth managers said.
A major Asian wealth manager said it has received a large flow of new money in Singapore from Hong Kong over recent weeks, requesting not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
One Hong Kong private banker said the majority of the new queries he receives are not coming from the super-rich, most of whom already have alternative destinations for their money, but from individuals with assets in the US$10 million (S$13.7 million) to US$20 million range.
The extradition fight reinforced concerns among Hong Kong investors and democracy advocates that the Beijing-backed government is eroding the legal wall separating the local judicial system from the mainland's.
"Even for those who think the protests will blow over, will die down, their conversations have become: change is coming, how are we planning?" said Mr Clifford Ng, a managing partner at the Zhong Lun Law Firm in Hong Kong who specialises in advising rich clients on cross-border transactions and investments.
The recent demonstrations are the latest trigger in a long process of Chinese money flowing to Singapore, London, New York and other centres outside Beijing's reach.
Singapore's US$2.4 trillion asset management industry has been one of the main beneficiaries because of advantages such as political stability, language and rapid air connections with China.
With the accelerating investor interest in Singapore, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) asked the country's financial institutions not to deprecate Hong Kong publicly because of the demonstrations, according to people familiar with the matter. The MAS wants to avoid the perception that Singapore is benefiting from Hong Kong's misfortunes, they said.
Client inquiries were running at about four times the usual levels after the protests started, and hundreds of leaflets explaining the process for booking assets in other jurisdictions were snapped up quickly by relationship managers, said the Hong Kong-based chief executive officer for Asia at another private bank. He said the level of interest reduced after the initial panic as people realised they have time to shift their assets if needed.
Like other wealth managers in Hong Kong, the chief executive officer said his clients are not yet moving much money, but are setting up channels to shift funds quickly if the situation deteriorates.
"It's a no-cost hedge for them," said Mr Ng, adding that the level of interest has not changed since Hong Kong shelved its proposed extradition law.
Monetary Authority of Singapore managing director Ravi Menon last month said discussions with financial institutions had shown "no signs of significant shift of business, of funds" at the time.
The Hong Kong private banker said his clients' biggest concern is whether it is safe to keep their money in the city in the long term, and many are seeking the reassurance of having another bank account overseas to make it easier to move their wealth.
The topic of Hong Kong's civil unrest and the potential for wealth to flee the city is so politically charged that most private bank executives interviewed for this report would speak only on condition of anonymity.
Setting up an offshore account generally takes longer than before the financial crisis due to know-your-customer procedures and stricter rules to deter money laundering. While an existing client with a stable job might be able to open one within three weeks, it could take six months for customers with complex company holdings or connections, the Hong Kong private banker said.
"We've received increased ... client inquiries about the Hong Kong situation in the past weeks,'' said Mr Lawrence Lua, the deputy head of private banking at Singapore's DBS Group Holdings.
"Investors, businessmen and wealthy individuals - they love orderliness and the rule of law. It is not unreasonable to say that they are exploring alternative locations'' in case the situation in Hong Kong does not improve, he added.
Hong Kong remains by far the most popular destination for mainland wealth due to its proximity, ease of opening a bank account and language issues. A Shanghai-based relationship manager at Jupai Holdings, one of China's largest private wealth managers, said the city is still the first destination for over 90 per cent of his clients.
For those planning long term, the Hong Kong demonstrations have focused attention on 2047, Mr Ng said, referring to the year when China's legal commitment to maintain the "one country, two systems" set-up expires.
The unrest in the Chinese territory is likely to have other repercussions too. Family offices, an increasingly popular way to manage the wealth of Asia's super-rich, are more likely to choose Singapore over Hong Kong as their base following the political disturbances in the territory, according to Mr David Chong, chairman of Malaysia-based Portcullis Group, an independent trust company that provides advice to family offices and high-net-worth individuals.
Mr Chong said he was aware of family offices with at least US$200 million of assets under management which are now looking to locate in Singapore rather than Hong Kong because of the demonstrations.