The new expat invasion: why more French bankers are moving to Hong Kong

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French bankers Hong Kong

It’s supposedly been a year of job cuts and expensive expat bankers buying one-way plane tickets back home. But no one told that to the French finance professionals still coming to Hong Kong.

There are about 18,000 to 20,000 French nationals in Hong Kong, according to French Consulate estimates. More significanly, the French population grew at 5% in the five years to 2015, the strongest rate of any expatriate group.

French expats we spoke to in Hong Kong say the finance sector is among the industries experiencing the largest surge of new Gallic arrivals.

“In the last 18 months I’ve been speaking more French here in Hong Kong than at any time since I left Paris 14 years ago,” says Alex Medana, CEO of Hong Kong consultancy FinFabrik and a former Deutsche Bank vice president.

“Today’s situation in France reminds me of 2002: no opportunities other than temporary work, social tension, high tax, difficulties setting up businesses, and an uncertain political and economic outlook,” he adds.

But French financiers are mainly flocking to Hong Kong for positive reasons. “One of the biggest drawcards is the ease of living and working here,” says Laurence Fauchon, a former quant at BNP Paribas, now COO of fintech firm SmartAlpha. “The city is highly efficient and extremely safe, which is important when you’re raising a family,” says Fauchon, who came to Hong Kong with her banker husband in 2008. “You can focus on both your personal life and your work without too many distractions.”

But how have more French people managed to find work in Hong Kong finance at time when global banks are trimming jobs and relocating fewer foreigners?

Many are moving within BNP, Societe Generale and other French banks, which (anecdotally at least) are keener on international transfers than most of their European and US competitors are.

“It’s an unwritten rule – which is sometimes bent at more senior levels – that you have to speak French to work at a French bank,” says Medana. “This means a lot of their roles in Hong Kong are filled by French staff.”

French banks also remain committed to Asian markets even as some other global players pare back in the region, says Fauchon. “Hong Kong is a major beneficiary of French banks’ external focus, since the city is a natural hub for Asia – the fastest growing region in the world. French banks seem ready and willing to relocate people to Hong Kong.”

Why so sought after?

French finance professionals aren’t only becoming more popular at French banks.

They tend to specialise in technical job functions – quantitative analytics and derivatives in particular – which are in short supply locally and don’t require Chinese language skills. “The high number of French people in mathematical finance stems from the French schooling system’s comparatively strong focus on maths and statistics,” explains Fauchon.

“Hong Kong is first and foremost an equity centre and the French are particularly strong in equity derivatives – the warrant is a French invention, for example – thanks to the prevalence of maths in French education,” says Medana. “Alumni networks at French Grande Ecoles and business and engineering schools also promote opportunities in Hong Kong.”

Fauchon says French expats in Hong Kong are also getting younger. “Only a few years ago, it was mainly experienced professionals making the move, but now the number of fresh graduates shifting here is increasing.”

France is one of only 11 countries signed up to a reciprocal working holiday scheme with Hong Kong that allows 18 to 30-year-olds to work in the territory for up to a year. This makes it easier for young French finance professionals to job hunt in Hong Kong and eventually secure long-term visa sponsorship for permanent positions.

Hong Kong is not a complete paradise for French finance professionals, however. It’s tough to get a front-office role in investment banking as the local industry becomes increasingly reliant on Chinese client networks.

French people also bemoan the notoriously high apartment rental costs that contributed to Hong Kong topping a June ranking of the world’s most expensive cities for expats.

“But if we look at our net incomes versus outgoings, overall most French people are better off being here. And as an entrepreneur, I’m able to build a sustainable business in a way I couldn’t do in Europe,” says Medana.

He says air pollution is among expats' chief concerns, although more foreigners are now quitting overcrowded Hong Kong Island for suburbs and villages in the outlying islands and New Territories. “Being able to live near mountains and the ocean helps to negate the bad aspects of Hong Kong,” adds Medana.

What do Hongkongers make of the French finance invasion?

“A minority of them do come across as arrogant douchebags,” says one local banker-turned-headhunter. “But most aren’t – and overall it’s good for the finance sector that Hong Kong is attracting more French people. They tend to be very technically skilled.”

Image credit: samxmeg, Getty

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