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Middle East private banking debate: The region reconsiders its wealth needs post-crisis

Local and international players are trying to break into the growing onshore Middle East private banking market. But dealing with the world’s wealthiest families poses big challenges. In the first part of Euromoney’s Middle East roundtable on private banking, participants discuss their individual models, and how the financial crisis has affected their clients.

Part two: Middle Eastern private banking debate: How to get your relationships right
Middle East private banking debate: Learn more about the panelists


Middle Eastern clients do not realize that most of their wealth is onshore

The worldwide move to onshore and the crisis have opened up private banking in the region

Local and international banks are going head to head to win a share of wallet

Regardless of model, gaining trust is crucial in the region

Has Dubai retained its credibility as a booking centre?

RB, Majlis Let’s talk first about two key macro topics that might have had an impact on the private banking industry in the Middle East – the financial crisis and the Arab Spring. Has this affected your business? For example, have you seen inflows or outflows of wealth into or from the region?

HZ, NCB The private banking business in Arab countries is relatively new if you compare it with international players. But in terms of the delivery and service model we are compared with them and we at NCB private banking have organized ourselves to be customer-centric and customer-focused, providing a tailor-made investment solution.

With regards to the financial crisis, everyone expected that there would be inflows. As a domestic bank in the region, we did not find that to be the case, however. We haven’t noticed any inflows from the international markets. We spoke to clients and asked them, given the circumstances occurring outside of the Arab countries, would they want to invest their money domestically? The answer is ‘yes’ provided there is the right opportunity and there is also confidence and trust in the US and European economies. 

Middle Eastern clients' onshore wealth

BD, Credit Suisse Speaking about onshore and offshore, I would like to point out that wealthy individuals are often not aware of their wealth allocation. If you ask individuals with $2 billion net-worth of liquid and illiquid assets, they would estimate that 50% of their wealth is held onshore and 50% offshore. But as a matter of fact, the maximum these clients hold offshore is about 20%. Their business, their real wealth, is local. They have a factory in Bahrain or they own land in Saudi Arabia. My perception is that Middle Easterners hold much more wealth in the region than outside it. That said, if we only look at liquid assets, the percentage of wealth held offshore will be higher.

RB, Majlis And did you notice a movement of this wealth?

BD, Credit Suisse As a result of recent events, no. Looking back on regional history, this is not the first transition phase in the Middle East. People are much more mature, especially the ones who have had a great deal of wealth for a long time.

RB, Majlis Dr Ghazi, what do you think about the extent to which money in the region flows on- or offshore as a result of macro events?

GA-R, Eastgate
I think there are some fundamentals that explain the dynamics of money moving in and out of the region. What tends to happen is that most of this wealth creation has taken place within the region. Then families start to obtain some cashflows that are not needed for expanding the business or for reinvesting in the same business or different businesses. Such families would take this liquid money and say "how can I diversify?"

There are two ways of diversifying. One is through geographical exposure, something not correlated to your main exposure. Another is opportunistic investment, which could be in or outside the region. What then drives how money moves is what happened to these businesses. When the financial crisis happened, a lot of money came back because these businesses ran out of liquidity. People wanted to bring some money, but it did not come to private banks. It went to bail out or restructure their businesses.

Private banking opens up

RB, Majlis And how does the fact that money that is held offshore and onshore and that may have different liquidity profiles affect the private banking industry in the Middle East?

BD, Credit Suisse
The private banking industry in the Middle East is very competitive. There is competition not only between international private banks but also among local private banks. Both offer different products. However, the battle for market share in private banking will be won by banks that provide a combination of global and local offering and have the capability to deliver their expertise to clients in corporate finance and asset management. At Credit Suisse, we pursue a multi-shore approach, focusing on serving clients on an onshore basis and providing offshore services to international clients, as they often seek multi-shore solutions for diversification reasons.

MS, HSBC We don’t view it as a sideline. We see private banking as being integral to HSBC’s business but I think Bruno has a point here on how a bank can meld international and domestic operations in the region. We have been in the region for 60 years. We have been banking important families on a commercial banking basis probably for that length of time, so in this market in which we are so well represented, we should be able to do it. In the region, corporate and family wealth are closely aligned and as such it is important to be able to service the combined needs of both.

RB, Majlis Gary, in your opinion, which types of banks are best positioned? And did you notice that inflows and outflows varied between large markets such as Saudi and smaller markets such as Kuwait, UAE or Dubai?

My experience through the crisis was that the local banks benefited. While the rest of the world was cutting interest rates to zero, interest rates in this part of the world remained at ones, twos, threes and in our cases sixes and sevens here in the UAE. So there was repatriation of cash back into banking systems generated by the crisis itself. We saw that huge wave of money come back into our bank and a number of the other local banks, driven by interest rate differentials. And also, for those living in the UAE, there was a belief in the banking system and a sense of wanting to wait and see, so actually more money was put on deposit in the country.

RB, Majlis But to what extent did this money coming back in go into higher-margin products? Was it just simply sitting on deposit? And can local banks manage money in more sophisticated products?

That’s a fair point. But that movement of money back onshore has given local institutions an opportunity to show that they are capable. We were lucky that we continued building our private bank even through the crisis because we wanted to showcase our private bank and its capabilities. We were engaging in much more of a conversation than we could have had the opportunity to do in the past, but the acid test is what is going to happen over the next one or two years? Will the money just go back to the Credit Suisses and HSBCs or will those local banks be able to show an international capability to manage money in an asset-management way rather than a deposit-account way?

RB, Majlis Stijn, as a tax advisory business, what has been your experience on the moves around onshore and offshore? Are there tax implications for clients who have wanted to repatriate cash, for example? And is there any concern from a tax perspective for clients that want to express an investment theme through a local bank but in an international market?

SJ, Loyens & Loeff The move to onshore has been less a result of the crisis and more to do with the OECD and G20 discussions on the exchange of information and the treaties being signed by the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, for example, with other countries to avoid being blacklisted. The advantages of these offshore jurisdictions are decreasing and the crisis has made people look for secure and stable onshore alternatives as well. Now, as an individual, where you choose your bank and where you have your bank account is in principle irrelevant for tax purposes. Where you live determines your tax residency, not where your bank account is, unless you have a US passport. But as clients wanted to onshore, we did see many who were considering changing banks as a result. They wanted new structures, new ideas. Tax planning becomes a topic when using investment and holding companies. Tax treaties are a key instrument and offshore jurisdictions do not provide for this; they only offer tax neutrality. Onshore jurisdictions that can offer favourable domestic tax regimes in combination with a wide network of high-quality tax treaties can offer true tax efficiency. A careful choice of specific jurisdictions from where investments are centralized can really make a big bottom-line difference. If these jurisdictions can also offer the highest level of discretion and an undisputed international reputation, you have reached your onshore goal. For some clients in this region it was a completely new way of looking at things – trying to restructure your wealth in a discreet, secure, manner that was tax-efficient without hiding it away. Some banks were more sophisticated in that type of sport than others. Here, locally, we saw in 2008 that there was an increasing interest from some local banks that invited us to do presentations on onshoring for their private clients because clearly they wanted to use that as an advantage over their local competitors. The international players in the region were already more familiar with onshore holding, trust and foundation structures and adapted quickly. We definitely have experienced a big increase in the popularity of, for example, Singapore, Luxembourg, UK, Malta and Netherlands as complementary to or even alternatives for BVI, Cayman Islands or Seychelles.

RB, Majlis Ihab, as a third-generation entrepreneur, how did the crisis affect your decision as to whether or not money should come back in?

IES, Sukoon
There were fireworks. The past 10 years have been an amazing journey for the family. Every year since the 9/11 attack there has been some adaptation to make. It is very tough to keep adapting to changes when you are in multiple industries, multiple locations, multiple countries, multiple structures, currencies, commodities and businesses – some of them are related, some of them are not.


RB, Majlis To what extent did you choose to take on those challenges yourself, or did you develop a stronger relationship with your private bankers and asset managers?

IES, Sukoon
I was very close to my private bankers and the products that they had. We were very lucky to have got out of some markets such as equities and UK real estate before the crisis. In part that was because it looked overheated. The crisis did create opportunities. We had to be very entrepreneurial in shifting investments, restructuring and maximizing the profits around that. There was also a lot of multiple tax advice.

RB, Majlis Sometimes it might be difficult to make sense of the advice one receives from multiple specialists. For example, one of the concerns we have had in our practice is when the head of the family business, who is trying to convert some of the operational company wealth into more liquid assets to diversify, receives information from an investment banker who says: "Now is the time to do acquisitions and expand your business." Then he receives advice from a private banker who says: "No. You already have so many businesses. You should look to diversify into other markets." How has the crisis affected your ability to think through how you become a trusted adviser to your clients when there is so much competing information and knowledge?

MS, HSBC Your point is exactly right. Complexity is increasing and the regional environment adds to this. You have to move to a position of neutrality, and you have to build that around the banker. The banker has to become that fulcrum for managing the product and the services of the group. He is the trusted adviser. What we are looking to do is increasingly empower that individual to say: "I am, in effect, making the selection around the approach. I can bring in the relevant pieces of family governance. I can bring in my trust teams. I can work with the commercial bankers. I can work with the investment bankers to do this." But let’s have the relationship manager right at the centre of this.

HZ, NCB I would add that governance of the whole investment business plays a great role in this. In Saudi there is the Capital Market Authority, which played a big role in governing the investment businesses after the crisis started, so the private banker is the centre point and the door opener between the client and the asset management, advisory platform and investment product specialists. The regulators are encouraging a systematic delivery and service model in the wealth management business. The relationship manager in private banking is not authorized to sell any investment products, but he facilitates all the capabilities around his client. So the relationship manager knows the client profile, and knows the client’s appetite for risk in its investment profile.

RB, Majlis Bruno, have you witnessed this changing role for the relationship manager?

BD, Credit Suisse Credit Suisse introduced its integrated banking strategy in 2005 and we are now more aligned. Once the bankers started working together more they saw that the integrated approach was a key differentiator. Our ability to complement our wealth management offering with customized solutions from investment banking and asset management means we can successfully meet the complex financial requirements of our high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth clients who are traditionally underserved by the classic private banking model. Of course it is not always easy to establish the right structure and encourage collaboration between divisions.

GA-R, Eastgate What complicates this further is that often one institution doesn’t see everything that the client has – particularly in the case of family offices. Some are now insourcing this relationship manager function. They are institutionalizing their activities and allowing themselves to not be in a situation where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. They have the sophistication to do that. Those with less wealth tend to consolidate their relationships with one bank and then use that integrated approach.

RB, Majlis Clearly, the objective is to provide a holistic solution. But the more you integrate your business units, the more you make one part of the business susceptible to the vagaries of another that you often do not have any direct relationship with.

BD, Credit Suisse There is no magic formula. I agree that the divisions need to be balanced in order to pursue an integrated offering successfully. At Credit Suisse the integrated model has done a very effective job of quantifying the additional revenues we have generated specifically because of cross-divisional collaboration, so there is a tangible proof of progress. We are now more aligned and our clients are increasingly aware of this.

RB, Majlis But what about brand risk? If you have different business units such as a leveraged finance unit, a proprietary trading group, a broker dealer and they are all integrated, what happens if there is a hiccup in one of those businesses? Aren’t you running a risk that you, as a private banking and asset management specialist, might be tarnished with the brush of a rogue trader?

MS, HSBC Yes, this is always a risk. No institution wants to prejudice its reputation and – as the past couple of years have shown – protecting the firm’s reputation is of paramount importance. This is best done through having clear procedures and controls that are understood and enforced. You have to have a values-based approach that reduces this risk and aligns all of the businesses effectively around reducing this risk to the fullest extent possible, however large the organization.

RB, Majlis It’s not just about structure or that your relationship manager knows who he or she is talking to, though. One key point would be the incentive structures that differ across the firm. Different business units incentivize their employees in different ways. That needs to be addressed if you are trying to harmonize the skills and solutions as a firm and present it to the client as one firm. If traders are incentivized differently than the relationship manager, the investment banker, or the broker dealer who is receiving commission, can it work?

MS, HSBC I am not so sure that is the case. Incentive structures have evolved on the back of the financial crisis and lessons have been learnt by banks as to how to ensure that reward better reflects the risk of the particular business line. It will no doubt will continue to develop in terms of increasing the alignment.RB, Majlis Does anyone believe that synergy is overrated?

GA-R, Eastgate There is an issue of a trade-off also between the independence of the private bank and the private banker and this kind of synergy if you want an integrated approach. The more you become integrated, the more you synergize these businesses, the more you lose your independence. As far as the client is concerned, you are selling me a Credit Suisse product wherever in the firm it comes from as opposed to the best product in the market for my needs. Private banking is supposed to be independent. Really, the role of the private bank is to find the best product for the client even if that product doesn’t come from the same group – or else how will you become the trusted adviser to the family offices?

GD, ENBD It’s a good point. Over the past decade we have seen the growth of the family office and the independent adviser. It is due to suspicion on the part of the client – they just don’t believe that banks can provide a totally integrated solution in an honest way. It is not because people are dishonest. It is just that it is very difficult for a big bank to all of a sudden say "This year we are going to cut our profits forecast by 50% because we want to give the best advice to clients, which is to be in cash." They are just not going to do that. Trying to get a really honest view of life from one bank is a dream. Certainly it should be an aspiration, but the independent adviser sector is still one to keep an eye on.

BD, Credit Suisse I don’t think clients have to be solely with one bank. In the case of one family office cartel that did a high-yield bond issue, we were there with three other banks. The key is that it is possible for clients to leverage the different strengths of various banks. Private banking is becoming a commodity and in theory everyone can do it. To be successful, however, you will need to be truly client-centric. You need to have a comprehensive client value proposition and an integrated approach towards meeting sophisticated client demands. Only with the appropriate in-house investment banking and asset management capabilities can we serve our clients in a way that truly distinguishes us from our competition.

RB, Majlis Is there a risk, if we think that the business is becoming more commoditized, that we will have this unintended consequence of then trying to prove too much by coming up with solutions that are actually too complex?

No, I don’t think so. We are all very conscious of the risk of mis-selling. We know how and why we have to explain risks. All firms are going to have their products pre-approved or have their reputational risk reviews, and setting appropriate risk tolerances is an essential element of client profiling. Clearly some accounts will have a higher threshold but it is a consensual approach, with all parties focused on ensuring the downside as well as the upside is understood.

Outperforming markets and building trust

RB, Majlis Risk tolerance is very important, but to what extent do you believe that products can really outperform the markets? Star stock pickers often underperform indices. Fund managers often have no consistency in returns...

It is a really important point. We all have supermarkets now, and anyone can go and sign a distribution agreement with most firms around the world and be distributing that product tomorrow. Service is the key element in differentiation. I think a very important part of that service element is that, yes, modern portfolio theory says ‘x’ but what is your benchmark? What are you looking at? We are seeing in the UK now is that clients would prefer to put $1,000 on the table and say: "Look after me for the next year" than to pay $1,000 for a structured note that wrecks their wealth. I think people are looking for the safety and security of the advice they are given by someone they trust, who is going to be holding their hand into the future.

RB, Majlis Pricing advice is always a challenge. How can a client figure out whose advice to take in the first place when it is difficult to compare?

GA-R, Eastgate They will look for independence. Outside of Eastgate, I am also on the board of the investment committee of an institutional investor. It is not a target for private banking, but when we looked at how to manage the portfolio we separated between advice and product very clearly. So, for example, when choosing an adviser, you would not use anyone, be they manufacturer, adviser, bank or consultant, that has a potential conflict of interest. You would ideally choose an advisor that offers just pure advice and has no association with a product. It depends on your needs. Do you want your private bank to be just a gatekeeper and advisor, or is it more convenient to use them like a supermarket?

SJ, Loyens & Loeff You only get one chance with a client. If you offer them bad advice, you won’t be offering them advice again.

BD, Credit Suisse I don’t believe that it is a question of independent advice. What is more important is trust and this can be very subjective. Trust is not a formula. It is not important if a client speaks to a private banker or to an investment banker. We are talking about the relationship manager. Independent of the division, clients work with a relationship manager because they have built trust over time.

IES, Sukoon But how far does that trust go? Do I want to tell one banker everything about my portfolio? What if I tell him and he leaves? And sometimes I am tempted to use one bank because the pressure is taken off. Other times I like different banks. And I don’t always want one opinion. I want the opinion of 10 banks that I can challenge.

RB, Majlis But what about a family office that cannot or does not want to separate the role of the operational manager and that of the investment decision-maker? Is more than one banking relationship sustainable?

IES, Sukoon
I see. It would depend. A large sophisticated family is often distrustful about dealing with a family office within a bank. When you look at a family office in a bank, they will tell you about a lot of products. You will find resistance from family members, who will tell you "This is nonsense. This is a product. This is something I don’t trust". But perhaps if you have one man, first generation, and he has a lot of cash and he has built up trust with one bank, then that would work. It depends where you are, how big you are and what the relationship is like.

RB, Majlis What I am hearing is that there appears to be a general reluctance by wealthy families to raise up the dish-dash and show everything. So how can you, as private bankers and wealth managers, give great advice when you don’t have all of the information?

GA-R, Eastgate Some clients will separate portfolios, so they will say "I want this portfolio with its own assets and liabilities and allocation, but it doesn’t mean that is all my wealth. It is just one portfolio and I want you to manage it". Now it doesn’t give you the global perspective of what this client has between operations and other activities, but at least, at that portfolio level, you have full visibility.

SJ, Loyens & Loeff It is a golden rule for a family office never to tell anybody everything. We have set up multiple parallel structures for a family in the region, but every structure has its own Chinese walls. That is the whole purpose of it. The structures should not affect or infect each other, so you don’t necessarily need to see the whole picture as an adviser. You can still concentrate on that one part, and if we advise a sovereign wealth fund or a multinational such as Shell, I don’t need to know everything. I can still give proper advice on part of the whole organization. Perhaps if I had known everything at the top, I would also be able to give some more advice, and add more overall value but that is not necessary.

BD, Credit Suisse Family offices don’t represent the typical client, let’s remember that. The family office is often improperly served by private banks that sometimes seek to compete with family office professionals rather than complement their operation. Family offices demand an institutional service but value a private bank’s focus on relationships. If you provide an integrated solution, you have a much bigger chance of seeing the big picture without duplicating or providing conflicting advice. At the end of the day, it is all about relationship and trust.

IES, Sukoon I also look at the bank’s own experience. Certain banks have different objectives when they are investing, they have a strategy in their own portfolios, and you can see that immediately. Sometimes I will find a very good product within a bank. When I sit with the bankers and they can explain it completely, and know it by heart, then I feel I can trust them with that product.

RB, Majlis Let’s talk about client segmentation.

Segmentation plays its part, but there is a risk that you start putting people in boxes by saying "this guy is only affluent" and you are not really looking at him as "where will he be tomorrow?". If you start boxing people too early, then you start missing opportunities and importantly may miss the opportunity to help the individual develop his wealth to its fullest potential.

For a bank like us, we then have our multi-affluent product. It is quite interesting when you start looking at the balances that the guys in premier have. You would say "These aren’t premier accounts. These are high-net-worth accounts, so why are they not in the private bank?" Some of it is client choice. So there is this whole thing of looking at the client portfolio, segmenting appropriately, but also allowing sufficient discretion to the fact that if you believe in wealth, you believe that wealth has evolution. You do not put people in the wrong bracket, and then say: "You can only have this limited range of services if you move to the next tier", otherwise it is just like being part of an airline membership club. It doesn’t really confer very much at all.

RB, Majlis Gary, what is your local bank’s perspective on client segmentation? There seems to be quite a high number of entrepreneurs that have made wealth here. It is not the old European money type of perspective on wealth. There appears to be much more of a traders’ culture; that the money comes from not further back than two or occasionally three generations. How do you relationship-manage across the different segments that you find in the region?

GD, ENBD We have made it generally quite simple. You have the expatriate and then you have what we will call the real local locals. If I think about local locals, the one thing that has surprised me is the new generation of wealth. It is incredible how young bankers in our team have had great traction with profound families. They work with and educate the younger members they went to school with about private banking and what private banking offers. In the NRI space, that is a tremendous driver of growth. Once you are here on the ground, the intensity of banking relationships that you can build with that crew is multi-generational, but our traders are doing extremely well out of this market.

HZ, NCB We have agreed with our retail business to look at the top affluent clients, to offer them the private banking business and investments, to grow their assets with us and to fulfil their sophisticated needs that cannot be fulfilled in the retail area.

RB, Majlis Touching on the NRI, are you seeing non-resident Indians and other expats coming into the UAE by virtue of a combination of perceived relative benefits, effective safe-haven marketing and reality? Are you able to capture more of that type of expatriate because you are in a geography that is perceived as being less risky?

GD, ENBD The lower risk is the safety of knowing that a tax man is not going to come knocking on your door. There has been a mass movement of people out of some of the European capitals to here. That has certainly been a growth story. We give them advice as to where to buy property, and secondly, how to arrange safe custody for their wealth here in Dubai or which platforms to use outside of Dubai. That has certainly been a growth opportunity over the past 12 months. Once we were beyond the worst of the financial crisis and Dubai calmed down, people were much more comfortable about coming here. There has definitely been a large movement of people and a number of new clients.

BD, Credit Suisse I would agree, and it’s part of this trend of emerging-market clients investing in each other’s regions. In a way that is a segmentation on its own. Today, there is a great deal more direct cross-border activity between emerging markets themselves. If you look at a client from Saudi Arabia, a client from Turkey, a client from India or a client from Brazil – almost all have the same financial needs and they are interested in investing in each other’s markets. Our global platform across Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Asia Pacific regions provides us with a unique competitive advantage to serve the needs of these clients. And Dubai? Guess where it is? It is exactly in the middle. So for someone from Asia wanting to invest in Africa, the easiest way is via Dubai. Dubai has the quality of infrastructure to be able to take this emerging-market role to the next level.

Macro concerns

RB, Majlis How do you balance global macro concerns with trying to service people coming into the region for a particular reason, sourcing where that capital comes from, dealing with some of the political implications of where that money came from? Even if the money came from a general enterprise, the fact that it came out of certain countries poses challenges. How does your bank square those types of situations?

GD, ENBD The Iranian situation has been the most difficult for all the banks because the way in which the portcullis came down was absolutely emphatic. There was to be no business, which actually makes it a little easier because there is no grey market in Iran. It really is this black and white as to what you can do with a passport holder from Iran – what you can and definitely can’t do in terms of dollar remittances. In terms of the other money, I am still a little sceptical that people in other parts of the MENA region have made a clear decision to leave Syria or Egypt and come here. There are maybe people who are parking here for a little while, which is what we saw in Bahrain, but people were almost always quite desperate to return because that was their home, so I don’t think there has been a mass migration to Dubai from within the region.

RB, Majlis Stijn, are you seeing more entrepreneurs looking to create tax-efficient structures or do you see older families, and then how do you approach different segments with your tax office?

SJ, Loyens & Loeff Here, to a large extent, you have relatively young wealth, and at the age of 60 to 70, the father starts to seriously think about anti-dilution and how to protect the assets and keep them within the family. It is understandable, therefore, that trusts and foundations are the type of structure that there is a demand for, not so much driven by tax efficiency but rather driven by protection and discretion. Tax efficiency plays a role at investment level because the investments might be in London, in Paris, in Singapore, where taxes are due. There you have to structure the investment in a tax-efficient manner, but this is at the very top of the family structure. It is a relatively new topic in the region. There is a huge demand for that, and there are not too many people concentrating on it, using tax-efficiency techniques for non-tax-driven structures. You see more banks taking that as a means of winning clients by offering solutions around it. When you are able to provide a family with these solutions, you will probably bind the next generation to you.

RB, Majlis Gary alluded to the parking of assets on a temporary basis. How do you create more sticking with the banks?

BD, Credit Suisse
For bigger banks with a strong footprint, it does not make a difference if a client is based in Bahrain, Doha or Dubai. We already have a presence in the key markets of the region and it would not make sense to move clients.

SJ, Loyens & Loeff What we have seen is that Dubai has really gained some confidence with, for instance, Europeans. You see people in northwest Europe now considering opening a private bank account or even family office platform in the DIFC. Dubai is seen more and more as a true alternative.

In the August issue, the roundtable participants discuss how they regard the search for talented relationship managers in the region, the challenges of managing client risk, and how they intend to grow their businesses.