Hong Kong (CNN Business)One of the world’s largest asset management companies is pulling out of Hong Kong and making Shanghai its main office for business in Asia.
Vanguard — which had more than $6 trillion in assets under management at the start of the year — said Wednesday that it will wind down its presence in Hong Kong over the next two years. The retreat will involve job cuts in Hong Kong, where Vanguard employs about 50 people.
The company is also closing a sales office in Japan, though it says its products will still be available in that market.
Those businesses mostly serve “institutional clients, and not the individual investors that are our primary strategic focus,” said Rebecca Katz, senior communications adviser at Vanguard, in an email to CNN Business. “We believe our greatest future opportunity to help change the way the world invests is to focus on individual investors and the intermediaries who serve them.”
Beijing has strict control over Chinese capital markets, leaving small-time investors with few options to invest outside of property and the stock market.
Even so, retail investing is booming: There are roughly 170 million individual investors in the country, an 80% jump from five years ago, according to the China Securities Depository and Clearing Company. The growth has been driven in part by gains in the country’s stock markets, which have recovered from a meltdown in 2015 and 2016. The Shanghai Composite ( index, for example, jumped 11% in July. )
Vanguard, which is based in Pennsylvania, has in recent years tried to appeal to retail investors in the region through other means. Katz noted that the firm has a joint venture in China with Ant Group — the financial affiliate of Jack Ma’s e-commerce company Alibaba — to offer individual investors advice and portfolio management. The project has amassed “several hundred thousand” clients in its first four months of operation, she added. (Ant Group has plans to soon go public with an IPO that could be among the biggest in history.)
“Our future aspirations in Asia are to serve Chinese individual investors in mainland China,” she said.
The timing of Vanguard’s announcement, though, is notable: Businesses have expressed concern about a controversial national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong this summer that critics fear will erode the city’s unique political and legal freedoms. The financial hub has operated semi-autonomously since the United Kingdom handed it back to China in 1997.
Katz said the law wasn’t related to Vanguard’s announcement.
“In fact, the decision to close the Hong Kong office predated the national security law passage,” she said, adding that the move is consistent with the company’s shift from institutional business to retail investors. She pointed to Vanguard’s 2018 closure of its Singapore office as another example of the strategy.
“Let me be clear about Hong Kong,” she added. “Hong Kong is an important global financial center, and continues to be an important international capital market for Vanguard.”
Katz said Hong Kong’s stock market will remain a “critical component” for the firm’s global diversified funds.
— Laura He contributed to this report.
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