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The rise of China's super-rich

About the author

Bryan Borzykowski is a Toronto-based business writer and editor. He writes about personal finance, wealth issues and other money topics for BBC Capital and also contributes to the New York Times, CNBC, CNNMoney, Canadian Business and the Globe and Mail. He’s written three investing and personal finance books, too. Follow him on Twitter @bborzyko. 

Anxious shoppers queue outside designer fashion store, Prada (Getty)

Shoppers outside designer fashion store, Prada (Getty)

China’s economic growth may be starting to slow, but that’s not stopping its wealthiest citizens from cashing-in and spending their hard-earned salaries. Many Chinese are getting richer and their free-flowing funds are being spent around the world, according to several recent research reports.

From Vancouver to New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong, shopping mall sales assistants are seeing more Chinese shoppers scoop up designer handbags than ever before, while real-estate agents are fielding calls from tycoons looking for living spaces with good feng shui.

Many of the newly prosperous are using the weeklong national holiday for Lunar New Year this month to fly overseas. China National Tourism Administration, estimates the number of Chinese outbound tourists will reach 8.5 million for this year's holiday, up 13% from the 7.5 million travellers the previous year.

An increasing number are joining the ranks of the super rich. The number of Chinese with more than 3.03bn Chinese yuan ($500m) in assets will grow by 6% this year to 535 people, according to a recent report by Wealth-X, a Singapore-based company that collects data on ultra high net-worth individuals.

Other studies have shown that the country’s high net worth population — people with more than 10m Chinese yuan ($1.6m) — is also climbing. Between now and 2015, the country’s high net-worth group will swell from 800,000 people to about 1 million, estimates US-based global management consulting firm Bain & Company.

Where’s all this money coming from? Massive economic growth, said Mykolas Rambus, Wealth-X’s CEO. For most of the last decade, the country’s gross domestic product has grown by about 10%a year — by comparison, US GDP growth has only exceeded 3% twice since 2003 — and it’s been business owners who’ve been able to take the most advantage of that rapid expansion.

“China has been the workshop of the world and the individuals who capitalised on that trend have done very well,” Rambus said.

Young and affluent

Due to its rapid economic gains, China’s wealth boom has occurred over the last decade. As a result, most of the country’s richest citizens are young and experiencing wealth for the first time. This is in direct contrast to countries such as the UK and US, where more money has accumulated by being passed down from generation to generation.

This new Chinese elite are also younger than their counterparts in Europe and North America. The average age of the high net-worth group is between 40-years-old and 50-years-old, compared with 50-years-old and 60-years-old in other countries, said Jennifer Zeng, a Beijing-based partner at Bain & Co.

As fast as China is expanding, it will still be a while before its high net-worth population overtakes America’s, which, according to Wealth-X, remains home to the highest number of rich people in the world.

Currently, there are about 65,500 American ultra high net-worth individuals —people with more than $30 million in assets — compared to China’s 10,675.

“The US is still quite far ahead, but that’s because the US economy is more developed,” said Tjun Tang, a Hong Kong-based partner and managing director with the Boston Consulting Group. “It may or may not happen, but we will continue to see increasing numbers of high net-worth individuals and a broadening of that wealth in China.”

Ripple effect

All this newfound money is having a ripple effect around the world.

For starters, home prices in hot urban areas, such as Vancouver, London and New York are soaring as Chinese buyers swoop in, said Zeng. In a recent survey she conducted with 3,000 high net-worth Chinese, 30% mentioned real estate as one of the top three investments they’ll make overseas.

One reason many wealthy Chinese are scooping up homes outside of China is asset diversification. It is also a way to get their money out of the country, said Rambus.

Many of the well-to-do are worried the government will, at some point, come after their riches. “There’s always a concern around what having extreme wealth in China means as it becomes more visible,” he said. “Are you at risk of running afoul of party guidelines?”

Foreign businesses are also in demand, said Tang. In Europe, high net-worth Chinese are seeking vineyards and chateaux.

“It started out in real estate and it’s spread to businesses,” he said.

More wealth has also been a boon for companies that sell luxury items, whether it’s big name brands such as Gucci, Burberry and Louis Vuitton or smaller operations such as Coach.

“China has become an extremely important market for luxury goods companies,” said Tang. “It’s absolutely critical for some of these top end brands to be there.”

What exactly this Chinese high net-worth growth story means for the world long-term isn’t clear, but there are two things for certain, said Rambus — people are getting richer and they’re spreading that money globally.

“More (wealthy) Chinese are coming somewhere near you,” he said. “Whether that’s in leisure or in business, we’ll see an increased number of Chinese growing businesses, experiencing new places and putting down roots.”

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Most of the country’s richest citizens are young and experiencing wealth for the first time.

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