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Morgan Stanley’s name is displayed on its headquarters in New York. The bank has launched a strategic review of its wealth-management division in India after only four years of operation.ANDREW BURTON/Reuters

Morgan Stanley has launched the sale of its India private wealth management unit, which manages about $1-billion including loans, after entering the highly fragmented and competitive market just four years ago, sources with knowledge of the matter said.

Wealth management platforms are usually sold for about 2 to 3 per cent of the assets under management, although the sources said it was not yet clear what price tag the unit could fetch.

Morgan Stanley has launched a strategic review of the division, the sources said, a process that typically ends with a sale.

The review is part of the bank's efforts to withdraw from subscale wealth management operations globally, one of the sources said.

The sources declined to be named because the sale process is not public.

A Morgan Stanley spokesman declined to comment.

The bank's India unit sale underscores a growing trend of consolidation in Asia's wealth management industry as private banks struggle to earn profits in the face of rising regulatory costs and wafer-thin advisory fees.

India is a particularly difficult market for wealth managers. Cut-throat competition, high staff costs and weak markets are squeezing revenue, while opportunities for growth are limited by regulations that restrict product offerings and by the concealment of billions of dollars of personal wealth from tax officials.

Many foreign players had scrambled to open up shop in India a few years back and aggressively ramped up operations to take advantage of robust economic growth, only to find themselves struggling.

"From the macro perspective it looks great in India, but when you get down to the ground it's a very different game," one of the sources said. "People get smitten by the India opportunity but very few people will succeed in this market."

Swiss private banks without a presence in India may be among possible bidders for Morgan Stanley's private banking business, drawn by the longer-term prospects of Asia's third-largest economy, market sources said.

"It will be a good opportunity for a new player to launch their operations in India instead of going through the two- to three-year process to build the business," said a wealth manager with a leading European bank in Mumbai.

India's ranks of millionaires shrank 18 per cent to 125,500 last year, according to Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management's world wealth report released in June, reflecting a one-third decline in stock market values and a weakening rupee.

Last year marked the first time India's wealthy had declined in number since 2008.

But in the longer term, wealth is expected to rise steadily in Asia, with relatively brisk economic growth creating large numbers of new millionaires annually in India, China and across the region – a trend that banks have tried to harness.

The challenge for the industry is that newly minted millionaires in Asia, rather than turning to private banks for help in preserving wealth as would clients in the United States and Europe, have treated banks more like brokers, working with several at once to increase their wealth.

Morgan Stanley chief executive James Gorman told an earnings call in July that scale was important in the wealth business for driving returns and that the bank was "taking steps to unlock value in our wealth management businesses outside North America."

The shakeup in the industry in Asia has accelerated since last year. Significant deals include Merrill Lynch selling its overseas wealth management business to Switzerland's Bank Julius Baer & Co. Ltd., and HSBC Holdings PLC selling its private bank in Japan to Credit Suisse Group.

Morgan Stanley launched its private bank in India with fanfare in late 2008 as it marked the U.S. bank's first onshore wealth business in Asia. It was also planning to launch a similar business in China, but has yet to do so.

The India unit has 70 people on staff, the sources added.

The sale plan does not affect Morgan Stanley's other businesses in India, one of the sources said.

Les Menkes, who oversaw the launch of the India business, left the bank last year, separate sources familiar with the matter said.