China's New Billionaires Worry About Leaving 'Untested' Heirs in Charge of Their Money

    As China's newly rich gear up for a first-time generational transfer of wealth, making sure their heirs are "suitable" for handling their legacy is proving to be a challenge.
    A photo posted by Wang Sicong, the son of China's richest person Wang Jianlin, of his dog with a stack of iPhone 7s he purchased for it as a "gift." A new report says that it is difficult for Chinese billionaires to find a "suitable" heir who can handle their legacy. (Weibo)
    Liz FloraAuthor
      Published   in Consumer

    Passing on vast fortunes to the next generation has been a focus for “old money” families in Europe for centuries, but China’s newly minted billionaires are thinking hard about how to keep their kids at the top of the 1 percent.

    According to the “Billionaires Insights” report released last week by UBS and PricewaterhouseCoopers, the rapid rise of the newly rich in China means that 85 percent of all billionaires in Asia are first-generation, making the transfer of wealth to heirs a particular concern as they grow older. A separate estimate by Hurun Report’s recently released China Rich List finds that this first-generation effect is so concentrated in China that 95 percent of China’s richest people didn’t inherit their wealth.

    With an influx of new money, China is set to see its “first-ever major intergenerational wealth transfer,” according to the report, which calls it a “critical handover.” In emerging markets like China, wealth transfer can be a particular challenge for the ultra-rich since business empires there are heavily reliant on personal relations, or guanxi. “Such is their complexity that they are difficult for a young person to manage,” it says.

    These billionaires have reason to worry, as current economic turbulence means that their wealth can be fleeting in China. The report says that while 80 new Chinese billionaires were created in 2015 and total wealth of China’s billionaires grew by 5.4 percent, 40 additional Chinese tycoons dropped off the billionaire list. Meanwhile, the Hurun Report’s new findings show that China actually has two fewer dollar billionaires than last year as of August 2016, a far cry from its 2015 estimate of new Chinese billionaires that was actually more than double that of UBS.

    The report finds that many Chinese billionaires are worried their kids won’t be up to the task of managing their fortunes, saying that it’s difficult to hand over “diverse corporate empires to untested heirs,” according to the report. It’s even more of a challenge in China because of the one-child policy, as wealthy families have limited numbers of children to choose from when trying to find a “suitable heir.”

    The money-flaunting public antics of some of China’s fuerdai (second-generation rich) don’t make it hard to see the source of concern. Wang Sicong, the son of China’s richest man Wang Jianlin, is infamous in China for his social media posts showing him wasting vast sums of money. He recently set off viral outrage among netizens when posted a photo of his dog with eight new iPhone 7s, which is actually part of a whole verified Weibo account he has set up just for the Alaskan malamute to show her with extravagant gifts. The pampered dog also made the news recently when he posted a picture of her wearing two Apple Watches worth $37,000 on two of her paws.

    Although not all of China’s fuerdai are as extreme as Wang, many idealistic wealthy Chinese millennials are reluctant to follow the path their parents set for them. “I am not so interested in taking over the family business,” according to one millennial Chinese heir apparent quoted in the report. “It’s a business I don’t feel passionate about. I would prefer us to sell the business and then reinvest in other companies. Not buying stocks, but actively managing those companies and learning about different sectors.” Concurrently, the report finds that rich Chinese from the younger generation are more interested in philanthropy than their parents.

    As a result of these trends, the report says that “cashing out” will often “be the only choice" for parents whose kids can’t or won’t take over the family business. In addition, some will be preparing their heirs for “ownership rather than management." Not all ultra-rich Chinese parents are reluctant to put their wealth in their kids' names, especially when it comes to luxury real estate purchases abroad that are meant to be kept secret. But for the future of the family business, the report predicts that most of China's rich will be opting for a "private equity holding company model" when they face difficulties in turning over their companies to a capable and willing heir.

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