SINGAPORE Adrian Tan owns two Mercedes sedans and is looking to buy a third car. The 36-year-old financial trader was shopping with his wife on a Singapore street lined with luxury car dealerships and said he may stick with Mercedes or go for an Audi or a BMW.
In Singapore, those cars don't come cheap, selling for upwards of $150,000 with taxes thrown in, but Tan said he was being relatively frugal.
"The younger ones who have more disposable income and are doing so much better than before, their willingness to spend dwarfs me all the time. I have peers in their 20s buying high-end Porsches, Lamborghinis and so on."
It's a trend being repeated across much of the region despite sluggish markets and worries about a double-dip recession.
Demand is booming in Asia for luxury cars, upmarket properties, art and jewelry, driven by a seismic shift in wealth from West to East.
In their latest annual wealth report, Capgemini/Merrill Lynch said the number of Asian high net-worth individuals, defined as having over $1 million in disposable income, soared to 3.3 million in 2010, while their wealth surged to $10.8 trillion.
Europe had 3.1 million millionaires last year with $10.2 trillion in disposable income, while North America had 3.4 million with $11.6 trillion.
With more wealthy Asians than ever before, sales of luxury goods, properties and cars are soaring.
In Singapore, just one BMW dealership in the city sells around 350 cars a month. In Greater China, which includes Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, BMW said it sold a total of 130,659 cars in the first six months of the year, up 60 percent from a year earlier.
Christie's, the auction house, says Asian sales of art, fine wine, jewelry and porcelain in the first half of 2011 were 68 percent above the previous year at $515 million.
"There is 13-14 trillion dollars spend in the region, one quarter of the world's wealth," said Porush Singh, senior vice president at MasterCard Worldwide. "The global financial balance is shifting toward Asia."
FIRST, BUY PROPERTY
The rout in global markets last week may have changed the total numbers of Asia's wealthy, but the region's rich appear to have weathered the storm better than their Western peers.
"Asia's wealthy are relatively insulated from global financial swings," said Mark Matthews, Asia head of research at the private bank Julius Baer. "Asia is very wealthy, but the wealth has not been (fully) institutionalized. It is first generation wealth, it is largely uninvested."
As a result of that uninvested wealth, banks and money managers are beating a path to the doors of Asia's wealthy to enroll them as clients and help them put their money to work.
The first port of call for many newly rich Asians is property. Tales abound of Singaporeans going to Australia for a holiday and coming back as apartment owners after spotting a bargain.
The city-state has the highest concentration of millionaire households in the world, with 15.5 percent having more than $1 million in assets under management.
In recent months London property has emerged as a favorite choice of wealthy Asians because of the weak pound and sky-high real estate prices in their own countries.
In the first six months of 2011, Asians have already spent more than 1 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) in new developments in central London, up from around 1 billion pounds for the whole of 2010, say realtors Knight Frank.
"The exchange rate from Asia to the UK is very favorable, whether that's China renminbi, Hong Kong, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur," said Sebastian Warner, regional director for Asia-Pacific at Knight Frank.
"The view is investors want another option and they see London traditionally as a very safe market and a market that provides very good returns in terms of yield and capital growth in property."
Consumption and investment by Asia's wealthy are being boosted both by low interest rates and high inflation.
"If you stay to cash, you lose purchasing power," said Dominic Schnider, head of Asia-Pacific macroeconomics at UBS.
"So you either consume it or invest. Staying with it you lose. So that is why you are seeing, or you have seen, investors gearing up their exposure toward more risky assets to try to avoid loss in purchasing power."
Wealth managers say Asians overall appear to have more appetite for risk than their Western counterparts.
"The willingness here to take a position in a risk asset tends to be higher and the ability and willingness to unwind that position and go onto the next trade seems to be higher here at the moment," said John Woods, chief investment strategist for Asia-Pacific at Citi Private Bank.
SPEND, SPEND, SPEND
Beyond investment, the outward trappings of wealth in Asia are also shifting.
Earlier generations saved cash. Now, Singapore's wealthy can be defined by the property they own. In China, legions of newly rich are characterized by flashy, big-ticket spending.
"Conspicuous consumption is very much a part of this culture of mass affluence in China, which is now coming into India, but is still much less," said Jahanzeb Naseer, product manager for Credit Suisse's equity research in Asia.
"In India, the ultra-rich (the multi-millionaires) are doing that, but in China, even people below the millionaire category are doing that. That's affected obviously retail sales and jewelry and all that. In Indonesia, anecdotal evidence shows that it is somewhere between India and China in terms of luxury goods spending."
Singh at MasterCard said wealthy Asians in 14 countries spent more than $1 trillion in discretionary consumption last year, on dining out, travel, luxury goods, vehicles and communications. Urban China accounted for about $255 billion, or about one-quarter of that spending.
This will rise to $1.8 trillion by 2015, with spending by China's urban wealthy rising more than 20 percent per year to more than $640 billion, MasterCard says.
Extravagance is apparently no longer the taboo it used to be in Asia.
"It used to be that when you're working, you wouldn't want to drive a flashy car because you'll be afraid of putting people off," said Tan, the Singaporean trader. "But now it's different. It's a flash game."
(Additional reporting by Charmian Kok in Singapore and Lee Chyen Yee in Hong Jong; Editing by Matt Driskill)