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Worried wealthy are stashing their riches in safe deposit boxes
A FEW blocks from Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, 46 Park Lane resembles a private club with wood-panelled walls and an ornate fireplace dating back to Britain's Victorian era.
But down a flight of stairs is one of the most secure rooms in London. Built by IBV International Vaults, the steel-walled stronghold is scheduled to open next month and will cater to billionaires looking for a place to stash their most prized possessions.
"We are getting calls every week about a room available for £2.5 million (S$4.4 million) a year," said Sean Hoey, managing director of IBV London, referring to an apartment-size space.
The firm, which also has 550 safe-deposit boxes on site and room for about 450 more, is betting on London's reputation as a "safe haven", even with Brexit. This will be IBV's sixth location, and it's hardly the only such firm fielding queries from the wealthy. From London to Switzerland to parts of the US, the rich are looking to store precious metals, cash and cryptocurrency.
For some, it's the threat of a global recession. Others are avoiding bank deposits as negative interest rates force lenders to charge for holding cash. Many are concerned about natural disasters.
A majority of wealthy investors are stockpiling cash in anticipation of a sharp market drop before the end of next year, according to a survey of clients from UBS Global Wealth Management.
"We have seen extraordinary demand for safe-deposit boxes ever since we started offering them in 2015, and that demand has really gone up since the late summer," said Ludwig Karl, a spokesman for Swiss Gold Safe, which operates high-security alpine vaults.
It's a similar story for Sincona Trading, a precious-metals dealer with more than 1,000 safe-deposit boxes for rent in central Zurich. It had scores of empty boxes three years ago, but now it's renting about five a day, said Benoit Schoeni, a managing director.
Safe-deposit boxes can range from a few centimetres in height to the size of a kitchen cabinet. Another option are free ports - warehouses in tax-free zones such as Singapore, Geneva and Delaware favoured for storing art, but which usually limit the amount of time that pieces can be held.
There are more than 25 million safe-deposit boxes by some estimates in the US alone. They can be used for the mundane to the exotic. For many banks, safe-deposit boxes are no longer a core offering. The amount of space they require is one deterrent. That's especially the case in London, home to the world's largest population of wealthy individuals, according to real estate broker Knight Frank. In the city centre, few places have secure storage facilities as large as IBV's on Park Lane, where customers can also purchase gold coins from across the globe.
In the US, safe-deposit boxes also have largely fallen out of favour as banks close branches and opt not to install them in new ones. Demand has waned in recent years, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co and Bank of America, the nation's two largest lenders. "Much of the decline can be attributed to clients opting to store documents online, especially younger clients," said Bank of America spokesman Don Vecchiarello.
But there is revived interest as fears of weather disasters and wildfires have prompted more people to secure their valuables, said Jerry Pluard, founder of Safe Deposit Box Insurance Coverage.
The boxes are also an option for cannabis businesses that are locked out of the US banking system because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, he said.
Some Swiss firms are also seeing demand driven by central bank policy. Negative interest rates have left Switzerland's banks caught between the prospect of losing money to hold client deposits and imposing fees that could chase customers away.
UBS Group, the world's biggest wealth manager, and rival Credit Suisse Group AG announced plans this year to expand measures for charging rich clients for holding excess cash.
To some, these extra costs have made the safe-deposit box a viable alternative. A spokesman for UBS's Switzerland bank, which operates almost 250,000 safe-deposit boxes nationwide, said demand from clients has declined in recent years.
"The storage cost for cash is cheaper than negative interest rates," said Swiss Gold Safe's Mr Karl. The firm offers six box sizes, with the largest renting for 4,039 Swiss francs (S$5,552) a year. "Cash storage has become a strong business for us."
Some bankers said the desire for safe-deposit boxes makes little sense. To avoid charges on their accounts, the wealthy can spread their cash across multiple banks.
Clients also need to buy insurance in case something happens to the money, such as a fire. Safe-deposit box firms sometimes subsidise that extra cost, with IBV London offering £100,000 of complimentary insurance for each hired container.
The proliferation of non-banks providing safe-deposit boxes has prompted some Swiss lawmakers to question whether they are providing a safe haven for wrongdoing such as money laundering, noting that they do not face the same level of scrutiny and regulatory oversight as traditional banks.
Storing large sums of cash in safe-deposit boxes demands a checklist of tasks. Those include arranging transport of the money and keeping detailed records of its location to avoid raising suspicions over money laundering if the cash ever returns to a bank account. Moreover, failing to strictly adhere to a safe-deposit firm's protocols may result in being rejected as a customer.
"The even bigger issue is getting the cash back into your account," said Felix Brill, chief investment officer of Liechtenstein-based VP Bank, which manages about US$50 billion of assets and offers some safe-deposit boxes. Still, "no one likes to pay negative interest rates". "Everyone looks for alternatives."
Safe-deposit boxes aren't always a fail-safe. In 2015, burglars drilled through the wall of an underground vault in London, making off with US$20 million of jewellery.
A year earlier, it was reported that a customer of a Wells Fargo branch in New Jersey lost millions of dollars of rare watches that had been stored in a safe-deposit box.
Ironically, heists and scandals can boost other firms offering safe-deposit boxes as the rich hunt for even more secure places to stash their prized possessions. BLOOMBERG