Last year was a dismal 12 months for the international banking and financial industry, with little sign of respite as we head further into 2012. With Europe occupying our thoughts, and driving the uncertainties, many are finding it hard to look beyond the doom and gloom and identify any bright spots. Asia has of course not been immune and we continue to see lay-offs in the region, particularly among the international players.
What though of the regional firms? When I talk to Chinese and regional banks and securities houses there is a more palpable sense of optimism. Many of them see this time as an opportunity to pick up good employees from the more recognisable houses, and also to increase their exposure to regional and international clients.
There is also a marked difference among job seekers in terms of which employers they will consider. Junior candidates continue to harbour (often unrealistic) expectations about salary and bonus opportunities with the international names, but senior people, who have an established and portable client base, are often more willing to move into an up-and-coming firm, provided there is a platform to service their business.
It remains to be seen whether or not this trend can be sustained in a marketplace where international clients are ever more demanding in terms of execution and performance. For example, regional financial institutions tend to buy their front-end systems off the shelf rather than develop them in-house, and they often muddle along with existing infrastructure rather than upgrade.
There has also been a noticeable trend of international firms moving some of their focus to China. Many see the region as being an engine of growth in the future and have been shifting resources there accordingly. It is well documented that talented, native-level Mandarin-speaking investment bankers are in high demand and this is certainly set to continue in 2012.
Mid- to senior-level private bankers, as long as they have a significant transferable portfolio, will always find a new home should they so wish. And sales and trading desks are increasingly looking to take market share from mainland Chinese institutional investors.
Where does all of this leave recruitment for 2012? Global events are certainly exacerbating indecision in many companies, and while every line manager that I speak to has a wish list for this year, it remains to be seen when, or if, these will be sanctioned by senior management. In the short term the market will remain subdued, but I fully expect that local and regional firms will continue to take advantage of this opportunity to cement their own positions.
Warwick Pearmund is a senior consultant, equities, at Advantage Resourcing in Hong Kong.