Are private banks in Asia hyping up their hiring?

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Private banks in Asia are growing fond of saying they are hiring in the hundreds but talent shortages in Singapore and Hong Kong could thwart their ambitions.

Take Julius Baer. Chief executive Boris Collardi told Singapore's Business Times recently that it intends to double its banker headcount in Asia from the current 130. The Swiss firm has offices in Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta.

Private banking headhunters don't doubt his desire to achieve this target and say Julius Baer enjoys a strong reputation as an employer, but they think expansion in the current job market will be tough.

No easy ride

"The 130 extra people it wants don't really exist in Asia. As a quality Swiss private bank, Julius Baer is only really after senior RMs and there aren't many of them looking to leave other firms," says a headhunter, who asked not to be named.

Julius Baer does have a record of heady hiring - it has grown from from zero to 500 people (including private bankers) since 2006. "But in 2006/07 it was aggressive and would pay over the odds. It was able to grow the business quickly but now I think it has to face reality, just like everyone else."

The firm is not alone in having grand plans in Asia. Last year

JP Morgan, UBS and Standard Chartered all publically announced three-figure headcount growth targets for their private banks.

"Banks are talking themselves up but in reality the appetite for hiring is not that aggressive. It's good publicity and creates confidence in your employer brand but there's no way they can meet these numbers. It's more aspirational than real," says the headhunter.

Not so fast

That's not to say that firms aren't adding RMs - there is plenty of money to be made from Asia's growing pool of high-net-worth clients, if you can only lure the right RMs to service them. But hiring rates are slower than the banks' announcements might lead you to believe.

"It's very challenging to attract experienced private bankers in both Hong and Singapore, given that almost every bank is looking for senior bankers. They in particular tend to be more settled and less inclined to jump ship so lightly," says Jack Bennett, director, Lion Rock International.

The anonymous recruiter adds: "Clients need a good reason to move their money to new bank and won't blindly follow their RM. So in turn, it's tough for employers to convince a banker to move."

Another headhunter, who asked not to be named, agrees there is a skill shortage. "Banks are not in the mood for risk taking, so they don't want priority bankers. As for candidates, without a push, nobody goes. Those bankers who are looking are usually dissatisfied with their bank and/or with their bonus."