Asia: Is Japan still a tough nut to crack?
The expulsion of Citigroup Private Bank from Japan in 2004 was merely the most dramatic of a string of failures among foreign firms that have too often misread the attitudes of investors and regulators. Now, as Japan’s economic recovery creates new millionaires and wealthy baby boomers prepare to retire, several foreign firms are trying again to crack this difficult but lucrative market. Lawrence White went to Tokyo to ask their CEOs what it takes to succeed in private banking in Japan.
THE CREATION OF a joint venture by Merrill Lynch and Mitsubishi Tokyo Financial Group came as something of a shock to many participants in the Japanese wealth management market, including Junji Okabayashi, Merrill Lynch’s head of global private client Japan and chief executive of the new venture.
“I was surprised but very positive when I heard the news,” he says. “Just over two years ago we in Japan were asked to make a growth plan: business was steady, but global leadership asked us how we could achieve steeper growth. I said that the key would be to get closer relationships with Japanese banks, partly because Japanese people store such a high proportion of their assets with these institutions. There was at the time a developing sense of urgency in the private banking market here, since the baby boomer generation are retiring and many of them will qualify as high-net-worth individuals given their huge pension deposits. Merrill Lynch and MTFG happened to share views on the wealth management business in Japan, found common ground, and that was a trigger to form our business alliance.