World Economy

Hong Kong vs. Singapore: Weighing Asia's financial hubs

'As a financial hub, SG has many advantages'

Many cities lay claim to being important financial centers, but two metropolises are usually seen vying for the title of Asia's most important financial hub: It's Hong Kong versus Singapore.

Singapore is a gateway to Southeast Asia and is seen as a wealth management hub, but Hong Kong boasts easy access to China's trade and capital flows, and has held the title of top global IPO market for two consecutive years.

"I think that Singapore is really in the right place as where the growth is. So if you think about the deep capital markets here, this ability to finance regional growth, its focus on wealth management, that sort of access to regional and international wealth management [are] opportunities from Singapore," Anna Marrs, regional CEO of Standard Chartered told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Monday.

As for Hong Kong, proximity to China is seen as the number one reason many Chinese companies choose to list there. Currently, almost 8,000 companies are listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, compared to around eight hundred on Singapore's.

"If you're talking about the equity markets, Hong Kong, you know, is part of greater China and the Chinese story is alive and well — and kicking. From an equity markets perspective, I think the Hong Kong capital markets is still extremely strong, valuations are not that stretched," said Tan Su Shan, managing director of Singapore's DBS.

Whether HK or SG, markets have to pay attention to this

But Standard Chartered's Marrs said in an interconnected world, proximity isn't enough. Her bank, she said, is now looking at Hong Kong as a gateway to markets beyond China — through Beijing's "One Belt, One Road" plan to connect markets along the ancient Silk Road.

"When you look at where China is investing, and you look at the One Belt, One Road markets, it's not just about Hong Kong," Marrs said.

Despite the opportunities, both Hong Kong and Singapore face various financial challenges.

In Singapore, slowdowns in a number of legacy sectors like oil and gas, construction and shipping are weighing on the financial industry.

Standard Chartered saw income down by about 6 percent in Singapore last year, and saw fewer private wealth clients. According to Marrs, one of the key places to hedge against risks is in the technology sector: Singapore is the technology headquarters for Standard Chartered, and in 2016 it launched a new innovation lab there in conjunction with its Smart Nation plan.

DBS also pointed to technology as a catalyst for its growth, not only in its domestic market, but also in new markets like India and Indonesia. Digital financial services are bringing access to liquidity, deposits and loans to the masses in those markets.

"How DBS wants to play in this field is to be able to harness this fabulous technology, to be able to give us that reach and that ability to reach out to a bigger market, a wider market without the cost that comes with an incumbent, you know, branch-based banking," Tan said.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, faces challenges in corporate governance and auditing as a result of doing business with China. Moreover, while it does have a budding financial technology industry, Ke Yin, CEO of CITIC Securities International told CNBC that this is one industry where Hong Kong lags behind mainland China.

HK, Singapore have different futures: Citic

Chris Wei, the Asia Chairman for Aviva told CNBC that Singapore is leading Hong Kong when it comes to innovation in fintech, and he cited the Singapore government's support for innovation as a reason.

"For example, giving access to financial institutions, to Singapore government databases for identity validation, for anti-money laundering validation etc., that helps a lot. So I think Singapore has taken a little bit of a lead in that. The journey is not over, it's a long-term one, but that, I think, is the next wave," he said.