Rich Asian families tighten belts, while others seek bargains

In September, as Hong Kong's streets filled with tear gas and protesters, third-generation heir Tony Yeung remained confident the city's economy would bounce back from the turmoil.

Now, amid the economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus outbreak, Mr Yeung is one of many Asian family office executives worried a rapid recovery is unlikely.

As some uber-rich US and European clans rush to buy assets at bargain prices, their Eastern peers are generally more cautious.

"As a family, it's OK to miss an opportunity; it's less OK to lose money," said Mr Yeung, whose wealth comes from property developer Peterson Group, where he is chief executive officer.

The reluctance among some of Asia's wealthiest families to rush for deals is potentially a warning sign for the global economy.

Asian wealth tends to be newer, with the original businesses still at the heart of the operation.

This gives them a front-line view of the real economy - from hotels and retailing to manufacturing and shipping - suggesting forecasts of a rapid rebound after a short, sharp recession may not pan out.

Family offices manage the wealth of either a single super-rich clan or a group of wealthy families. Globally, there were more than 7,300 as of mid-2019 managing assets of US$5.9 trillion (S$8.4 trillion), according to Campden Research.

Mr Joseph Poon, group head at Singapore's DBS Private Bank, said many of his Asian family office clients initially deployed the same playbook used during the 2003 Sars outbreak, which saw an economic rebound within months.

But as the coronavirus spread into a global pandemic and financial safe havens evaporated, those with extensive operating businesses quickly realised this would be a different beast.

"Overall they're cautious; they believe there's more downside and that we're seeing a dead cat bounce, and they're raising cash and dry powder," he said.

The chief concern of many is the global wave of unemployment and its deleterious effect on consumer spending.

AJ Capital Asset Management, which manages money for the Jhunjhunwala family, had originally planned to offer loans to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in places like India.

But Mr Anubhav Gupta, who looks after private investments at the Singapore-based firm, said many of the plans have been deferred as lockdowns savage economies.

And when it does lend money, it will be to larger companies with assets that can be used as collateral.

"We've been seeing an opportunity to lend to borrowers higher up the credit curve on a secured basis with similar dollar rates of return to what we had estimated we would achieve lending to SMEs," Mr Gupta said.

The hesitation to strike deals does not mean Asian family offices and their operating businesses are set to fail en masse. Most have relatively low levels of debt.

Right People Renewable Energy founder Robin Pho, who runs his own family office and sits on the board of Family Business Network Asia, said some of the wealthy families he has spoken to have sold assets to build up cash buffers.

"Deal flow will be lessened now because everyone is being cautious and wants to wait and see," he said.

The bearishness is not universal.

For the Tolaram family, who derive much of their wealth from supplying basics such as noodles and cereals, business has remained relatively stable.

Mr Manish Tibrewal, chief executive of Maitri Asset Management, which received seed funding from the Tolarams, said both organisations are open to making new investments, albeit at discounted valuations.

LOOKING FOR VALUE

With governments around the world unleashing trillions of dollars to keep businesses and workers afloat, many companies have managed to avoid seeking fresh capital at fire-sale prices.

"We're long-term investors and we don't know how long this will last, but it definitely can't go on forever," said Mr Tibrewal.

Others are keen to invest, especially family offices in China where the economy is reopening.

For some, the crisis represents a high-stakes case of fear of missing out.

"The wealthy are more proactive than ever, constantly monitoring, thinking and debating how to position their wealth. They don't want to miss the rebound like in 2008," said Mr Nick Xiao, chief executive of Hywin International, the Hong Kong arm of Hywin Wealth.

Even so, Peterson's Mr Yeung said investors must be careful. As collapsing oil prices and fast-changing government lockdowns have shown, the cost of a wrong bet can be catastrophic.

"The true economic issues and impacts haven't surfaced yet and will gradually do so in the next couple of months, and that's when we'll see if government bailout policies are effective," he said.

BLOOMBERG

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2020, with the headline Rich Asian families tighten belts, while others seek bargains. Subscribe