Hong Kong’s wealthy build cash piles as protests deepen

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Hong Kong’s wealthy residents have boosted their cash holdings to multiyear highs as the trade war and political unrest fan fears of recession.

Rich individuals in the city are holding close to a third of their total holdings in cash, a level not seen since the 2008 financial crisis, according to consultancy Capgemini.

Hong Kong’s family offices – the advisers that invest the wealth of the super-rich – have also turned to cash, with holdings at 12-14 per cent, according to research from UBS’s wealth management division and data provider Campden Wealth.

That is the highest level since the survey was launched in 2015 and is “considerably higher than the global average”, said Enrico Mattoli, head of Global Family Office in Greater China at UBS Wealth Management.

Dr Rebecca Gooch, director of research at Campden Wealth, said: “Family offices are cautious about geopolitical tensions, and there is a widespread sense that we’re reaching the end of the current market cycle.” Of the Hong Kong family offices surveyed, 56 per cent anticipate a recession next year.

Hong Kong’s economy grew at its slowest annual pace since the financial crisis in the three months to June – figures that did not yet capture the impact of the unrest, prompting some analysts to predict that recession was imminent.

For investors already grappling with the impact of the US-China trade war, Brexit and tension in the Middle East, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests were “another straw on the camel’s back”, said John Woods, chief investment officer for Asia Pacific at Credit Suisse.

Demonstrations in the city have rumbled on for 19 weeks, with authorities failing to contain a movement organised around the kung-fu principle “be water”. Investors, as a result, have one more reason to be liquid, according to wealth managers.

In its most recent survey of Hong Kong residents with more than $1m in investable assets, in the first quarter of this year, Capgemini found that cash made up 30.3 per cent of portfolio allocations, overtaking equities – at 28.7 per cent – for the first time since 2015. Those weightings echo trends last seen in 2008, a year in which global stocks took a beating.

The proportion of cash holdings will probably have grown further over subsequent quarters this year, with wealthy investors “gradually moving to other conservative allocations like alternative investments, cash, and fixed income”, said Chirag Thakral, deputy head of market intelligence at Capgemini.

Hong Kong’s stock market has struggled amid the street protests. The benchmark Hang Seng has lost 4.6 per cent since the end of July, when clashes between demonstrators and police took a violent turn. It is the world’s worst-performing developed market this year.

A fall in global bond yields – $13.69tn of which are now in negative territory – has also burnished the appeal of cash, according to wealth managers.

Institutional investors, too, also asking for “highly liquid solutions”, said Paul Sandhu, head of multi-assets quant solutions for Asia Pacific at BNP Paribas asset management. “They want something to hold on to until the time comes when they can invest.”