If you’re searching for a senior investment banking job in Asia right now, the employment market in mainland China is looking particularly buoyant.
Instead of the usual summer hiring lull, recent months have witnessed a wave of senior musical chairs among global investment banks with operations in China.
Earlier this week Bank of America Merrill Lynch hired Alex To, chairman of China investment banking at Morgan Stanley, to head its China investment bank. JPMorgan poached David Li from UBS in July as its new China head, while the previous month Morgan Stanley hired Jing Qian from Deutsche Bank as managing director and head of China origination.
Also in June, Credit Suisse poached Steven Wang from UBS as head of consumer, retail and healthcare for Greater China. And there have been internal promotions, most significantly BNP Paribas appointing Paul Yang into a newly created role as head of Greater China.
“There is currently extreme competition in the China IBD space,” says Hubert Tam, managing partner at Hong Kong headhunters Sirius Partners. “Because more Chinese-owned investment banks have been expanding in recent years, the bulge bracket firms are having to fight hard to recruit senior bankers who can provide access to quality deals.”
But what type of senior bankers do Western banks in China want to hire? Headhunters say they share certain common characteristics.
Tam says almost all senior investment bankers recruited by foreign firms in China over the past few years have been “sea turtles” (Haigui), a slang term for Chinese nationals who have returned to the mainland having studied abroad.
These days, however, you’re likely to need more than an overseas undergraduate degree to get an investment banking job in China. Headhunters note an increased demand for MBAs, as is also the trend in the US.
But with MBAs becoming a more common qualification among Chinese professionals, global banks can now afford to be selective about who they hire. They are mainly seeking candidates from elite overseas business schools (think Columbia, Wharton, Yale).
“Most people at a senior level in banking in China already have a Masters degree or MBA so banks are looking for good schools, particularly those in the US,” says Alistair Ramsbottom, managing director of Shanghai search firm The Blacklock Group.
This year global investment banks are also particularly keen on candidates with experience in Chinese debt capital markets, for jobs in both the mainland and Hong Kong. Asian debt issuance rose to record first-half levels this year, according to Thomson Reuters, although the top-five bookrunners for Chinese domestic DCM to date in 2014 are all local banks.
“China DCM is very much in demand, both on and offshore, but because only a few foreign banks can participate in onshore DCM, the job market is very competitive,” says Ramsbottom.
In terms of sought-after sector coverage, headhunters in China say many of their hiring mandates this year are for bankers with experience in healthcare, consumer, and technology, media and telecommunications.
Regardless of function or coverage industry, Western investment banks in China are (at least at mid to senior level) fond of poaching from each other rather than from local firms – as the people-moves mentioned above show.
Difference between Western and Chinese banks in terms of management style, office culture, bonus arrangements and working hours make it a difficult transition for bankers with several years’ experience at a domestic institution. “But bringing in talent from the likes of CITIC and CICC does have benefits at junior level,” says Ramsbottom.
Above all, success in Chinese investment banking depends not on your technical or managerial skills but on your ability to build external relationships. “In the Chinese community, relationships are what makes the difference between a getting the deal or not,” says Tam from Sirius Partners.
Growing your client-base within private corporations and state-owned enterprises is obviously essential, but as China internationalises its financial system, job descriptions in Chinese investment banking are increasingly calling for strong relationships with local regulators.
Western banks are “cautious”, however, when it comes to assessing potential candidates’ political relationships, points out Ramsbottom. Firms such as JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank have been the subject of US regulatory investigations and Chinese anti-corruption drives for allegedly hiring princelings – family members of China’s elite – to win new business.