The case for a middleman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am

William Louey Lai-kuen no longer meets separately with five private bankers once a month, just once with the man from Guggenheim

When William Louey Lai-kuen, the wealthy scion of one of the Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) founding families, wanted a financial adviser more than a decade ago, he went shopping on Hong Kong's exclusive private-banking circuit.

It seemed prudent to spend a little more to get the best service, particularly from big-name banks which could draw upon an A-list of professional advisers. Eventually he was sold on the exclusive services provided by a handful of financial institutions which promised modest growth with limited capital risk.

Fast forward a dozen or so years and Mr Louey is not happy. Instead of asset appreciation, his collective portfolio is little bigger than when he started. The expected gains from years of compound interest, not to mention appreciation in the equity and fixed-income portions of his portfolio, never materialised. According to Mr Louey, much of the fault lies with his own lax oversight of his portfolio. He rarely read the reports that arrived in his office, and rarely dug deeper into how asset mangers were using his money.

Mr Louey, 44, maintains a non-executive role on the KMB board - a company his grandfather co-founded in 1933 - but has left the safety net of the family business to pursue his own entrepreneurial ventures. These include Hong Kong Construction (Technology), which provides green-slope technology and air purification systems, and mainland fashion retail brands Jesiri, Chic-a-porter and Manhattan, as well as a seafood export business.

One reason his account underperformed, Mr Louey believes, is heavy fees and account charges. During the boom years, these charges seemed insignificant, but during periods of flat or declining markets, they began to bite. By separating his holdings among as many as half a dozen private banks - a common practice among Hong Kong's wealthy - he only aggravated the problem.

Mr Louey says no single bank had a complete asset picture. And by coincidence they each designed what amounted to copy-cat asset-management strategies. This caused a lot of unnecessary waste as the carbon-copy holdings carried duplicate account fees, performance fees and other maintenance charges.

As the technology boom steamed ahead, Mr Louey says his money managers began to stray from their original mandate, moving into products that carried higher risk. That amounted to loading up on the investment darlings of the day - Internet plays, software developers and telecommunications shares.

When technology derailed in the spring of 2000, many of those shares got hammered. But despite the rout, most account managers refused to sell, thinking the bounce was around the corner. 'They should have cut their losses,' he says.

Although he laments the blowout, Mr Louey says his experience is not simply bad luck. Many of his friends who have assets managed under similar schemes experienced similar losses.

Frustrated by his situation, Mr Louey began to seek help earlier this year. During a trip to New York in January he met the investment advisory firm Guggenheim Partners - an exclusive financial services group with links to the prominent family better known as benefactors behind the Guggenheim Museum. After several meetings, he signed on with the investment advisory's Hong Kong office, entrusting the firm with oversight of his entire asset portfolio.

Guggenheim Partners provides no brokerage services. Instead the firm works with the private banks to devise an overall management strategy. The set up, Mr Louey says, reduces the duplication of holdings and risk exposure. Those unnecessary account fees have also been reined in, thanks to Guggenheim's authority, even duty, to police the fee schedule and ferret out hidden maintenance and account charges.

Instead of separate reports and meetings with representatives of each private bank, he now meets once a month with a Harvard-trained account manager from Guggenheim who takes him through a simplified presentation.

Michael Fung, chief executive of JP Morgan Private Bank in Hong Kong, likes the idea of a 'middleman' such as Guggenheim. He says these financial advisories can help identify overlap in equity portfolios, estimated to be as high as 30 per cent among clients who bank at multiple institutions. 'That might give you a bird's eye view of looking into your portfolio and give you better advice,' he says.

Less than 1 per cent of private banking clients make use of firms such as Guggenheim, which resemble a trust structure and are sometimes referred to as a 'family office'.

'In Asia it is still very new,' Mr Fung says. 'The reason why this family office makes sense for clients is because in the last few years the markets have been having a very bad downturn. Clients are paying fees to the fund managers and at the same time they are looking at the portfolio which keeps on going down. All of a sudden these guys say 'whoa, maybe I listened too much to the bankers, too much to the portfolio managers, maybe I should have an expert middleman'.'

And has Guggenheim helped bottom-line performance? Mr Louey says his portfolio has performed well since bringing the company onboard earlier this year, but concedes part of that is due to the stock rally that began in April.