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China’s millionaire club grows, even as expansion slows

June 3, 2011, 4:15 PM UTC

By Sheridan Prasso, contributing editor

FORTUNE – China’s plan to launch nearly an IPO a day through 2015 is creating a phenomenal amount of wealth, and the world’s top banks are scrambling to capture it. And even though the rocketing economic growth in China shows some signs of slowing, Chinese household wealth will still grow 14% a year for the foreseeable future, according to a new report from the Boston Consulting Group.

U.S. and European banks are racing into the region — or at least as fast as Chinese regulators will let them. In the past few months, banks teamed up in joint ventures with Chinese securities operations to offer investment banking and they’ve added a slew of private wealth-managers in Hong Kong to offer investment and financial planning advice. They’re also working to produce a spate of Chinese yuan-denominated products such as bonds and derivatives — all offered for the first time last year. Deposits in the Chinese currency in Hong Kong bank accounts also quadrupled last year.

China’s official Five-Year Plan to support the privatization of state-owned enterprises and encourage 300 public share offerings a year through 2015 will translate into billions of dollars just waiting for wealth managers and investment opportunities. “You will see many more Chinese companies come to market, and many wealth creation events,” says Tjun Tang, the head of the Boston Consulting Group’s Asia-Pacific financial institutions practice and one of the authors of the report. “That’s why many private banks are gearing up to serve this growing market.”

It’s not always easy. China doesn’t allow its currency, the yuan, to be fully convertible, and it has restricted market access to foreign banks that want to open new branches and offer their full range of services to Chinese customers. While terms for China’s gradual opening up of the banking sector were laid out when the country joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, foreign banks have found the past decade of regulatory approval to be a slow, step-by-step process that has kept them far behind the curve as domestic Chinese banks mature and continue to grow.

Tedious as it may be, the opportunity is too huge for the banks to ignore. On Thursday, Citigroup (C) announced that it would form a joint venture with Shanghai-based Orient Securities Co., allowing it to underwrite stocks and bonds in the China market for the first time. Orient Securities would own 67% of the venture. But Citi is a relative latecomer to this game. Seven other banks including Goldman Sachs (GS), Deutsche Bank (DB), UBS (UBS), and Royal Bank of Scotland have already launched Chinese securities ventures. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Morgan Stanley (MS) received Chinese regulatory approval for investment banking in January.

On the retail level, Citibank is expanding as fast as Chinese regulators will let it. It has just 36 branches in 13 cities in China, although it has said publicly that it wants to have 50 by the end of the year and 100 within three years.

And HSBC considers Asia’s banking potential so critical that last year it relocated its CEO Michael Geoghegan and his top executives from London headquarters to Hong Kong, calling Asia its “strategically most important region.”

For now, private banks in Asia have just $1.5 trillion of the $38.5 trillion of the total wealth in Asia—or less than 4%. “The penetration of private banking is low, so the opportunity is still very big,” says Tang. “A lot of onshore markets [like China and India] are still highly regulated, so as the regulatory environment begins to open, private banks will be allowed to sell more in those domestic markets.”

For a while now, it’s been clear that Asia is getting richer faster than the rest of the world—though the U.S. still remains on top. According to the data from the BCG report:

— Wealth in China and its surrounding countries (except Japan) grew at a rate of 17% last year; household wealth of Americans grew at just over 10%.

— Yet U.S. growth is still higher than the 8% average in the Middle East and Latin America; Europe’s wealth growth was an anemic 4.8%.

— The United States still has the most millionaires of anywhere in the world (5.2 million households) – five times more than China has (with 1.1 million).

— And the U.S. still has the highest number of “super-wealthy” households having over $100 million (a total of 2,692).

— But China experienced the highest growth of “super-wealthy” households – the number is up 30% (to a total of 393).

— Emerging markets will experience most of the growth going forward – 14% in China, and 18% per year in India, through 2015.

One of the unfortunate stories, however, is Japan. Even without its huge natural disaster, its wealth has been declining — it was down by 0.2% last year. While the Japanese had more than 50% of Asia’s wealth in 2008, that number is expected to decline to 33% by 2015 as China and India continue to grow wealthier, keeping global growth engines surging ahead, and the world’s top banks scrambling to keep up.