When David Zhu, a former investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, quit to join a private equity firm in Beijing, he wrote an epitaph to the city as a hedonists’ paradise. It went viral. There was a backlash from the mainstream media. It was another PR own goal for bankers everywhere.
And yet for most other investment banking analysts in Hong Kong sweating and toiling at their desks for between 80-100 hours a week, the reality is completely different. "I used to cry at midnight at my desk because there was simply too much work to do," says a young female analyst at a bulge bracket bank in HK. She declined to be named because of company policy. "And it's not only me. Most girls I know here have cried a few times."
The workload of investment banking analysts in Hong Kong is a similar story to elsewhere in the world – never leaving the office before 11pm, 100-hour weeks. One Hong Kong analyst told us he worked 110-hours for two weeks running. “That was painful,” he admits. “But you won’t always work like that.”
Burnout is more of a problem in Hong Kong than elsewhere, though. In an efc survey last year, 80% of mid-career bankers in Hong Kong were burned out to some degree, higher than in the UK and US. It’s not all down to long hours.
"It's also the pressure," says another analyst. "In HK, sometimes you are required to do work that's usually done by an associate. As the exposure increases, so does your responsibility. Hence more pressure." He used to work in New York and noted that bankers in HK are more likely to be more burnt out than their peers in the US.
But the more experience you gain, the more the pressure fades and boredom sets in. This analyst says that after working on a few M&A deals and IPOs, it’s become a bit routine: "I don't get as excited now as when I first started," he says. "I know what it’s like by now, so sometimes I start to wonder whether it makes sense to go on like this."
Working on deal after deal without learning anything new is not an appealing option, he says. Once you lose this sense of purpose, you start to feel more burned out, he claims.
Senior bankers advise graduates thinking of going into the industry to know their next career move before starting out. As strange as it sounds, analysts we spoke to already feel stuck. The option of taking an MBA and switching to the buy-side is an attractive route for many, but staying in banking isn’t a long-term option for most.
"I don't know how long I'm going to stay, but one day I'll leave, because when I look at those senior bankers here, I know I don't want to become one of them," says one third-year analyst.
Banks at least appear aware of the need to retain their juniors. Barclays is proposing to cut its pitch books – the bane of junior bankers – from 80 pages to 20. Deutsche Bank and UBS are also taking measures to ensure that analysts are given more interesting work and client interaction earlier in their careers. And, of course, most banks have hiked base pay by up to 20%...