It has not been a good week for the reputation of expatriate finance professionals in Hong Kong. In the wake of Rurik Jutting’s arrest several media reports have painted a picture of drug-fuelled young bankers regularly running amock in seedier parts of the city.
But while Hong Kong no doubt still has its share of debauched bankers, overall the ranks of young expats in the finance sector are steadily declining. Western bankers in their 20s and early 30s are generally unwanted in Hong Kong Share on twitter – and that’s not because they necessarily behave badly, it’s because they don’t know enough about the mainland Chinese market.
“For the most part investment banks just aren’t importing front-office staff from the US or Europe,” says John Mullally, associate director of financial services at recruiters Robert Walters in Hong Kong. “In recent years investment banks in Hong Kong have shifted their attention to candidates with proven Asia and China market experience,” adds Eunice Ng, director of Avanza Consulting in Hong Kong.
China-related revenues across investment banking stand at $4.2bn so far this year, up 80% from the same period in 2013, according to data provide Dealogic. Global banks base many of their mainland-focused staff in Hong Kong. “There will continue to be a significant expatriate presence in the upper echelons of management in Hong Kong, but otherwise the nationality of staff is becoming increasingly aligned with that of their clients,” says Miles Henderson, managing director of Castle Peak Executive Search in Hong Kong.
When banks in Hong Kong try to source front-office candidates from abroad, they are now primarily targetting the growing number of Hong Kong and Chinese nationals who are working or studying in the US or Europe. “Banks here do want an international perspective, but these days they can often get it from ‘returnee’ candidates,” says Ng.
While the flow of young front–office talent from the West to Hong Kong has not stopped completely, “external hiring” – moving from one bank in London to a different firm in Hong Kong, for example – is now a rarity. “I have only ever observed internal moves within the same bank,” says Jens Soderlund, managing partner at Hong Kong search firm Sirius Partners.
Bankers transferred internally into Hong Kong for the first time tend to fill “very specific and highly technical roles,” says Mullally from Robert Walters. Belying their boozy stereotype, today’s junior expats in Hong Kong are more likely to spend their evenings stuck behind a spreadsheet in the office than out on the town entertaining clients. “They will find more internal opportunities within the markets space and in roles that require quantitative skills, rather than in IBD, which often requires Mandarin and a strong network in Asia,” he adds.
That doesn’t stop some budding expats from trying to find work in Hong Kong, however. “We still get a lot of people with a rather overinflated view of their own abilities, thinking they can transition into a Chinese sales role on the back of European coverage,” says Henderson from Castle Peak. “They are a waste of time, but more and more people are gradually getting the message that the Hong Kong market is becoming more mature.”