This excessive capital requirement is the reason why OCBC paid such a high price for the Asian private banking business of ING and why DBS and UOB are trying harder to build up decent private banking businesses, despite repeatedly failing to do so in the past.
While private banking itself does not use up much capital, clients and prospects want to put their money in banks that have plenty of capital. A very high capital base is a great comfort blanket. As is the conservative nature of a bank. OCBC and UOB have both and while DBS’s FTs are more cowboyish, they have been kept in check, so far.
OCBC’S private bank claims that it is attracting assets from the Singapore branches of French banks as the euro region’s debt crisis frightens their local clients. Defections from French banks helped generate net new money of about US$4 billion for Bank of Singapore this year, the CEO said recently.
Private banking looks like a good use of the local banks’ capital, given that their conservatism and regulatory requirements require them to hold excessive amounts of capital.
But they are late in the game where economies of scale matter. Example: OCBC’s private bank (the biggest by far of the three local banks) had US$29.6 billion of assets under management at the end of June, less than 9% of the total at BNP Paribas’s wealth management unit. And this French bank is not a serious player in the either the Asian or international private banking industry.