Four years ago, Asia was the promised land for the ambitious banker who wanted a sparkling future. Not any more.
“People are calling me every day from Hong Kong and Singapore and saying they want to move back to Wall Street,” says Jeanne Branthover, the New York-based head of Boyden’s global financial services practice. “But it’s very difficult to come back from Asia now. Few people can move with their firms and it’s tough to find a job on Wall Street unless you’re on the ground."
2014 will be all about banks recruiting for the North American market, predicts Branthover. "We've just had our weekly call with our consultants all around the world and everyone's in agreement that their clients are either pushing into the U.S. or growing what they have here already.
"Two or three years ago, everyone was in agreement that emerging markets were where the growth was going to be and that was where banks were hiring. That's no longer the case. Now all the noise is around the U.S," she adds.
The emerging markets bubble is in the process of deflating. The FTSE all-world index is down 5% so far this year and there are concerns over Chinese economic growth and the stability of the Chinese banking system. The U.S., by comparison, is seen as a safe haven. Such is the desperation to get back to Wall Street that Branthover says some American bankers are ditching their Asian positions and returning to the U.S. without jobs lined up. "It's causing real hardship," she says.
Nor is Europe a much better bet. Investment banking fees in European markets were at their lowest level for 10 years in January 2014. Coupled with the high cost of living in London, Branthover says the moribund market is prompting City-based American bankers to examine their U.S. options: "It used to be that people were dying to go to London. Now it's the other way around."
International banks are certainly expanding on Wall Street. Nomura wants to hire 20 M&A bankers in the U.S. this year. Deutsche wants to rebuild its US fixed income business. And UBS's global head of equities told Financial News that they want to take market share in America this year and will be "growing judiciously" there.
Nonetheless, it's not easy for senior dealmakers to move back to the U.S. market. Gary Goldstein, CEO of US-based search firm Whitney Partners, says most of the hiring in New York City is now happening at middle market boutiques: "There's been a ground-shift in the industry. As big banks focus only on the largest deals, the middle market is now defined as anything below $5bn and that's creating huge opportunities for smaller firms, many of which are hiring like crazy." Unfortunately, Goldstein says these mid-market M&A firms are mostly focused on national deals and therefore have limited appetite for American bankers who've developed a client base overseas.
Not everyone is overwhelmingly pro the U.S. market, however. Michael Karp, chief executive of global financial services search firm The Options Group, is predicting a comeback in Europe this year. "Europe has been quiet for a while and we see momentum picking up in there and more financial institutions hiring this year. Americas is already very active," he told us, omitting to make any mention of the prospects for Asian hiring this year...