Rothschild ponders growth beyond Southeast Asia

A fine pedigree and comfortable business in Singapore, but without a substantial role in North Asia; is China the answer?

The view from Singapore, regional headquarters for Rothschild Asset Management, is fine. The firm manages S$2.3 billion ($1.28 billion) in the Lion City, with 65% of that sourced locally and nearly 90% sourced from Asia. The majority of its business is from Singaporean and other Asian institutions but its local unit trust business is exploding. Moreover the firm has taken steps to really define itself by selling off its Australian business, which had grown too domestic and too retail, and had become separate in nature from the rest of the family. "We really are an Asian business," says managing director Jill Smith.

So in some ways business has never been better. But Smith admits the question of how to approach North Asian markets, where regionally the real growth stories lie, is a tricky one. Rothschild closed its Hong Kong office in 1999, because two regional hubs simply didn't make sense and the firm's Singapore and Southeast Asian business was by far the stronger.

Smith says, first of all, that she sees opportunities in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, which she thinks will soon return to global investors' radar screens. Rothschild has a stake in Malaysian investment manager K&N Kananga and has helped that firm develop to international standards.

She acknowledges the firm can't simply return to Hong Kong after its withdrawal, although it still retains several Hong Kong institutional clients. But Smith believes China, the frontier of asset management in Asia, is a place where Rothschild can make opportunities. The firm's investment banking affiliate has offices in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as Hong Kong.

Moreover Rothschild could leverage its relationships with partners in Singapore to create a role in China. It counts 25 distribution arrangements in Singapore including nearly all the major banks, brokers and insurance companies. "One advantage we have is that we can be flexible and opportunistic," Smith says. "China is irresistible but its development is at such an early stage that we can be patient and find a platform to enter." She says Rothschild would look for an arrangement with a local partner in which it can offer expertise in areas such as global fixed income.

Most of all, the firm has that wonderful intangible: "We have a fantastic brand name," Smith concludes.

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