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Banks hire Thai wealth managers as country mints millionaires

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When Jittiwat Kantamala gave up his job in Singapore as a private banker with Credit Suisse Group AG to return to Bangkok, he assumed he'd have to find a new position in a different area of the financial industry.

[SINGAPORE] When Jittiwat Kantamala gave up his job in Singapore as a private banker with Credit Suisse Group AG to return to Bangkok, he assumed he'd have to find a new position in a different area of the financial industry.

To his surprise, he quickly found a role as the local private bank head at CIMB Group Holdings Bhd, one of several firms riding a boom in Thailand's wealth business.

Steady economic growth and a surging stock market are among the factors behind the rapidly swelling ranks of affluent Thais, according to a recent report by analysts at Capgemini SA.

The total assets of the country's 100,000-plus high net worth individuals rose 13 per cent to US$548 billion last year, the second-fastest growth in the Asia-Pacific region after Indonesia, Capgemini said.

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Sensing the opportunity, wealth-management firms are hiring. Jittiwat says he plans to double his 7-person team of private bankers over the next year, in an effort to bring in new clients.

Each of the existing 500 high-net worth account holders have an average 40 million Thai baht (S$1.62 million) with Kuala Lumpur-based CIMB, he added.

Credit Suisse established a local wealth presence in 2016 and since then has doubled the number of Bangkok-based private bankers to about 12, according to a spokesman.

"It is a such a competitive market here that being based in Bangkok is an advantage, as you can go find new clients in the provinces," Mr Jittiwat said. "Thailand remains an untapped market. Not many know how wealthy we are," he added.

OVERSEAS INVESTMENT

Private bankers are also attracted by the way the government is making it easier for rich Thais' to invest overseas, which plays to their strength in international markets.

Thailand wants to see more investment abroad, partly to offset the country's hefty trade surplus and ease upward pressure on the currency, said Santitarn Sathirathai, head of emerging Asia economics at Credit Suisse in Singapore.

In 2015, the Bank of Thailand raised the limit on overseas property purchases by Thais to US$50 million annually and lifted the ceiling on foreign currency holdings in domestic banks.

That's a contrast to Indonesia, where the government has been encouraging citizens to repatriate assets to bolster its tax revenues and stem capital outflows. Last year, it launched a nine-month tax amnesty that offered lower tax rates to Indonesians who moved their money back home.

While Thailand is a smaller wealth market than Indonesia, its rapid growth and "very constructive regulatory environment" make it attractive, said Vincent Chui, who heads private wealth management and institutional equity distribution in Asia at Morgan Stanley.

United Overseas Bank, Southeast Asia's third-largest lender, plans to boost the number of its Bangkok-based wealth bankers to 250 from 130 currently over the next five years, said Yuttachai Teyarachakul, UOB's managing director and country head for personal financial services in Thailand. The bank's assets under management total 300 billion baht, of which 70 per cent belong to clients who hold at least 3 million baht with UOB, Mr Yuttachai said.

RICHER BILLIONAIRES

The effect of the surging Thai stock market on local wealth can be seen in the fortunes of the country's super-rich. Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, the country's richest person and owner of Thai Beverage Pcl, saw his wealth rise 44 per cent to US$16.7 billion this year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Dhanin Chearavanont, the largest shareholder of Charoen Pokphand Group, more than doubled his fortune to US$5.3 billion.

CIMB recently raised its client threshold for private-banking services to 30 million baht from 10 million baht previously, reflecting the growth of the local wealth market and to align with international standards at private banks, Mr Jittiwat said.

"It's the top segment that we see the highest potential for growth in Thailand," said Mr Yuttachai at UOB.

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