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Wealthy Households Set Up Shop in Asia

In the 1470s, the Spinola family of Genoa had offices all over the world, including in Barcelona, where an apprentice business agent named Christopher Columbus helped handle shipments.

These days, that Italian clan and other ultra-affluent families are moving assets to Singapore by setting up family offices — private companies that manage the trusts and investments of rich households — in the city-state sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Asia.

Wealthy people from Europe and the Americas have long looked to the East for ways to build and preserve their fortunes. But only recently have they started opening family offices in the region in earnest.

“Because Asia has been a place where we’ve been investing very heavily — more than 50 percent of our assets are in Asia for the last 15 years — we feel a need to come closer,” Federico Spinola, son of the family patriarch, said in an interview from New Caledonia, a Pacific archipelago.

Campden Wealth, which provides research and data on family offices, said that up to 10 European family offices had moved to Singapore since the financial crisis in 2008, bringing $5 billion to $10 billion worth of assets with them.

Singapore, a global banking and investment center in the heart of Southeast Asia, is an attractive base because of its efficient registration process, relatively benign regulations, smooth movement of money, financial infrastructure and low tax rates.

The island, which is clean and safe, also offers high-end shopping, fine dining, casinos, luxury hotels, golf courses and marinas filled with superyachts to help the wealthy spend and unwind.

Prospects in Asia are alluring at a time when the economies of Europe and the United States are weak. Since the financial crisis, regulatory pressures in the West and a crackdown on offshore centers have hastened the pace of family offices’ moving to Singapore, as well as to Hong Kong.

“The families want to be where the action is,” said Munish Dhall, a UBS executive director and head of ultrahigh-net-worth offerings and client development. “They want a piece of the economic pie.”

Big financial institutions, feeling the pinch of a tougher investment banking climate and higher capital requirements, are taking note.

UBS, the Swiss bank, has set up a family office team that is seeking to cater to two dozen clients in Asia who have assets of $200 million or more. Other global players, like Credit Suisse, HSBC and RBC Wealth, are also courting family offices, along with DBS Group, which is based in Singapore.

The Spinolas, whose ancestors include crusaders during the Middle Ages, cardinals of the Holy Roman Empire and influential figures in the politics, culture and prosperity of Genoa, are one of those families.

Last year, representatives of the family began setting up an office in Singapore to manage their investments in the region, rather than using their Geneva operation, Parly.

Parly Singapore is still in an early stage, as it applies for licenses and tests its custom portfolio management tools. The plan is to hire senior investment managers from top banks during the next year, with 10 to 15 members of the team working under an advisory fee model rather than on commission.

“We are a family company, and the family is not involved in the business,” said Mr. Spinola, who sits on a management committee with several relatives and now has permanent resident status in Singapore. “We’re basically shareholders.”

By keeping family and investment matters separate and allowing Parly managers to make decisions, he said, “that is a way of differentiating risk.”

The Spinolas are joining together with two other family offices to cut costs and create efficiencies.

Mr. Spinola would not discuss the amount of investment in Parly Singapore, and neither would its managing director, Roxanne Davies. But she did give a clue.

“A family office with such a strategy can’t really exist — it is not economically feasible — without half a billion,” Ms. Davies said.

Campden Wealth, a financial advisory firm for family offices, counts about 2,500 family offices around the world. In Asia, it says, there are 150 to 200, roughly half in Australia and Japan, but the number is growing with the sharp increase in new wealth in China, India and Southeast Asia.

A recent survey by Campden and UBS showed that the amounts being managed by these family firms ranged from $50 million to more than $1 billion, with an average return of 9.1 percent during the 12 months that ended in October 2011.

The goals for the Spinolas and other family offices are simple: control their wealth, maximize returns and minimize fees charged by money managers.

“Singapore is tightening offshore rules, but it will continue to be a very attractive place for family and investment offices,” said David Bain, Campden Wealth’s head of research. “No government in the world is so committed to attracting the money of the ultrahigh net worth.”

Wealthy families from Europe are looking to set up shop in Asia because of the banking situation in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, said Donald Riegger, an expert on family offices at Deloitte & Touche in Singapore.

“It’s picking up steam,” he said. “If you’re a European looking for a better tax structure, Singapore could work well.”

Mr. Spinola, who worked at the Italian beverage maker Martini & Rossi and managed agricultural firms in Argentina before setting up Parly in Geneva in 1993, is no stranger to investing or to Asia.

Now he and his family want a more direct link to how their money is managed in the region, although success is not certain, given the volatility of markets and the variety of political, investment and regulatory risks in many Asian countries.

“We are trying to move away from hot money, high-frequency trading and things that have price discovery that we just cannot control,” said Ms. Davies, Parly Singapore’s managing director. “If we are able to target single-digit returns of 6 to 7 percent annualized in today’s market, we would think of ourselves as very lucky.”

Pending approval from the authorities, she said, Parly will move the “centralized thinking process” from Geneva to Singapore, which has been “very open to new ways of wealth management and financial technology that surrounds it.”

Parly’s portfolio is heavily weighted to equities, with investments mainly in energy, commodities, health care and biotechnology.

In Asia, Ms. Davies said, Parly is interested in opportunities in the consumer sector, Japanese innovations and venture capital, especially in technology firms.

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