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Emerging banks battle global giants in Asian job sector with “crazy hiring”

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Relationship managers in the trade-finance sector are so sought after in Singapore that banks are prepared to offer 80% salary rises to snare new senior recruits.

And if you’re a trade-finance professional in the city state right now, some of the most lucrative jobs are at Australian and Middle Eastern banks, who are prepared to pay above the odds to poach talent from the likes of HSBC and Citi.

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Trade finance forms a major component of transaction banking, a sector that is expanding in Asia-Pacific as banks chase steady income streams from globalising Asian companies and try to reduce their reliance on investment banking.

Wholesale transaction-banking revenues in Asia Pacific are expected increase to $139 billion by 2022, from $46 billion in 2012, according to a September report by the Boston Consulting Group. Investment-banking fees, by contrast, totalled $14.9 billion in Asia last year, according to Freeman data.

International firms dominate transaction banking in Asia Pacific, with Standard Chartered boasting a 21.4% market share, followed by HSBC (18.6%) and Citigroup (11.8%), according to data released in February by research firm East & Partners.

The global players have also been hiring in Asia. Citi has added more than 1,000 roles in transaction banking in the region since 2012, according to Bloomberg, and it’s now trying to increase its market share. HSBC announced plans last week to use its established network of Asian offices to capitalise on Asian trade-flows and the regional expansion of mid-market clients.

Right now in Singapore, however, Middle Eastern banks – including National Bank of Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and Qatar National Bank – are stepping up their trade-finance hiring, according to a recruiter in the sector who asked not to be named.

While ANZ already has an established trade-finance team in Singapore, fellow Australian firms Westpac, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and National Australia Bank are building “very aggressively” to tap into increasing trade flows between Australia and Asia. “We’ve seen CBA poaching from the likes of Standard Chartered and paying well above average. Westpac is doing some crazy hiring too, and they pay a lot to attract people because they’re not a major player,” says the anonymous recruiter.

Relationships matter

Global and regional banks alike are all trying to hire trade-finance relationship managers, in particular senior ones who have strong networks with CFOs in Asian companies, says Farida Charania, Asia Pacific CEO of search firm Nastrac Group in Singapore

“Most banks deliver similar pricings, platforms and product structures in trade finance, so what they really need to gain an edge are relationships – they want RMs with a track record of moving clients with them every time they join a new bank,” says Charania.

RMs from other parts of the banking sector, however, aren’t in demand in trade finance, she adds. “It’s not just about being able to communicate well; you have to understand how international trade works and be a subject-matter expert.”

Because there are comparatively few experienced RMs in Singapore and because incumbents are “well looked after” by their current employers, Charania says base pay can rise by up to 80% for “exceptional” senior RMs who change companies. At director level, salaries of S$350k (US$280) are on offer in transaction banking, according to the Robert Walters 2014 Salary survey.

Demand for trade-finance staff isn’t so strong at the junior or mid-levels, says Orelia Chan, manager, financial services, at Robert Walters in Singapore. “But particularly in the commodities field, we have seen a shortage of trade-execution talent due to the specific product coverage experience required – for example in metals or oil.”

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