Despite the sputtering global equity markets, Merrill Lynch plans to increase staff at its private wealth management business in Hong Kong by at least 10 per cent to tap growing demand. The United States investment bank manages about US$1.1 trillion in assets, making it the world's largest wealth manager, James Gorman, president of Merrill's global private client group, said in Hong Kong yesterday. The investment bank managed portfolios as small as US$4,000 and as large as US$4 billion. Its wealth management unit recorded US$1.2 billion in pre-tax profit on US$9 billion in revenue last year and increased its profit margins by 400 basis points 'in one of the most difficult markets in years', Mr Gorman said. The division aimed to lift its margins to 20 per cent, a goal it was close to achieving in the US, he said. Asia - and Hong Kong in particular - had been very profitable for Merrill's wealth management business, Mr Gorman said. The region was a key focus of its strategy for growth as incomes rose and uncertain markets forced investors to turn to specialists for advice. 'We see these [Asian] markets as the single best opportunity for dramatic growth,' he said. Merrill has about 115 financial advisers in Hong Kong and about 300 in the region. It is recruiting from rivals and broadening the products it offers to clients. 'We plan to increase [the number of financial advisers] by no less than 10 per cent this year in Hong Kong,' said Albert Lee, a market executive at Merrill's private client business in Hong Kong. Hong Kong accounted for about 75 per cent of growth in the region last month, he said. Merrill has no plans to set up operations in China due to regulatory restrictions.