Singapore’s pawnbrokers gain a new kind of kudos

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Singapore's pawn broking industry appears to have gained a new kind of kudos in the wealthy city state, where living costs have risen and alternative sources of short-term finance have become more acceptable.

Last week, ValueMax, which was established 25 years ago, became the third pawnbroker to list its shares on the Singapore stock exchange since mid-2012. It surged 17 percent on its trading debut, reflecting strong interest from investors in alternative finance providers.

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Analysts say it's not difficult to see why there's investor interest in pawn shops: Tighter credit, rising living costs and a make-over of shops away from intimidating store fronts with metal bars have all contributed to their popularity among consumers in the Southeast Asian nation.

Singapore has gradually moved up human resources firm Mercer's global rankings of the world's most expensive cities, moving to sixth place in 2012 from eighth in 2011 and eleventh in 2010.

"We can see from the official statistics that there has been an increasing trend in people using pawn broking services in the past five years," said ValueMax Executive Director Yeah Lee Ching.

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"It is linked in a way to the higher standard of living as people need more money to finance their consumption. Other reasons that have caused the growth include the wider acceptance of pawn broking as a source of finance and higher accessibility," she said.

The number of pawnshops in Singapore stood at 201 as of October 1, up from 138 in 2009 and 191 last year, according to the country's Insolvency and Public Trustee's Office.

Tighter regulations to protect consumers from loan sharks have helped the popularity of pawn shops, analysts said.

"The government has tried to crack down on underground lending and loan sharking and it wants to formalize this kind of lending to protect the consumer," said Hak Bin Chua, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Singapore, referring to pawn brokers.

"[Pawn broking] does seem to be better regulated now than in the past with somewhat clearer rules and no overcharging," he added.

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Yeah at ValueMax said there's a maximum 1.5 percent interest rate that pawn shops in Singapore are allowed to charge.

She added that most customers pawn gold jewelry, diamonds or watches, noting a growing trend of more wealthy individuals using pawnshops to finance investments or business operations.

In fact, analysts note a rising trend in pawn shops around Asia as well as other parts of the world such as the U.K., where they have grown in popularity among middle-class consumers.

In March, Oi Wah Pawnshop Credit Holdings became the first ever offering of a pawn shop on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Maxi-Cash Financial Services, listed on Singapore's Catalist board, has soared some 38 percent in the past year. It listed in June 2012.

MoneyMax Financial Services, which listed in August, has had more of a mixed performance. It's trading at about S$0.37, below levels where it started trading but off lows touched last month.

"There is a play on these stocks at the moment as they provide some source of finance for low-to-middle income consumers," said Chong Yoon-Chou, an investment director at Aberdeen Asset Management in Singapore.

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He added one reason for caution: "Over the other side of the world, in the U.K. for instance, we see that some listed-pawn broking companies are going through a challenging period because of the fall in gold prices so that is something to watch."

"A lot of collateral for this business [pawn shops] is gold content so if the price of gold falls that has an impact," Chong said.

In September, local media reported that shares in Albemarle & Bond, one of the largest pawnbrokers in the U.K., fell sharply after the company issued a warning about its profits, which had been hit by falling gold prices. Gold prices are down over 20 percent so far this year.