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Hong Kong banking hiring holds surprisingly “steady” (for now), despite 14 weeks of unrest

Fourteen straight weeks of mass protests, shrinking growth on the mainland, a flatlining economy at home, a trade war between the US and China, a bearish local stock market, and cost-cutting at banks like HSBC: it’s safe to say that the macro environment could be better if you’re looking for a banking job in Hong Kong. But despite the (big) headwinds, finance recruiters in the city say hiring is stable or only slightly down year-on-year, as new jobs in Hong Kong’s virtual banks help to offset cuts in front-office investment banking.

Elaine Lam, associate director of Robert Half, describes the job market across the banking sector as “reasonably steady”, while Sid Sibal, director of banking and finance at Hudson, says it’s “flat” compared with last year as banks maintain existing headcount by replacing staff who leave. “The social situation in Hong Kong hasn’t made a big impact as yet – barring a few isolated cases,” says Sibal. This is in contrast to sectors such as retail and tourism, which have cut hiring as businesses reel from the impact of the civil unrest.

Hong Kong has experienced the usual summer slowdown in banking recruitment over the past few weeks, says Rhoda Rivera, associate director at recruiters Ambition. Managers have been on holiday, causing delays to hiring decisions, and banks have begun their seasonal second-half tightening of headcount budgets while they plan for next year. The job market in financial services has not been greatly affected by the unrest in Hong Kong, says Rivera.

Some recruiters, however, believe the sometimes-violent unrest in Hong Kong is having an impact – albeit a fairly minor one – on the banking job market, primarily by further slowing down hiring decisions. Police and protestors clashed again this weekend as police used tear gas to disperse anti-government marchers in Causeway Bay, and some demonstrators set fire to barricades in Central.

In this “highly-sensitive environment”, banks are “exercising extra caution” when recruiting, says Rick Chung, associate director of banking and financial services at Randstad. Local candidates are as keen to apply for new jobs as they were last year, but they’re more “selective” about accepting offers and are paying more attention to the “stability” of the bank and the team, says Chung.

Overseas-based job seekers – whose ranks have greatly thinned this decade because of increasing demand for Mandarin skills – are exercising similar caution. Abimanu Jeyakumar, head of Selby Jennings in Hong Kong, says foreign candidates are now asking him more probing questions before deciding whether to relocate. “But the political situation hasn’t stopped them from moving,” he adds. “Hong Kong remains and will remain the regional HQ for much of Asia’s global markets and capital markets activity.”

Senior candidates from the US or Europe, who had previously confined their Asian job searches to Hong Kong, are now open to roles elsewhere in the region, such as in Singapore, says another headhunter, speaking off the record. “But if I offer them a good role in HK, they still take it. For now, despite the protests, Hong Kong is still the preferred Asian destination on the sell-side or buy-side for a lot of people,” he adds.

Although the Hong Kong job market is flat overall, there are some pockets of growth, in particular roles within Hong Kong’s newly minted virtual banking sector, says Lam from Robert Half. The eight online-only banks, which are backed by firms including Standard Chartered and Ant Financial Services, are due to launch later this year and are hiring in functions such as technology, compliance and strategy. “These roles represent an entirely new influx of opportunities,” says Lam. “Many virtual banks are poaching from traditional banks by offering sizable pay rises,” adds Sibal from Hudson.

But there are also areas where recruitment has fallen year-on-year – front-office investment banking and trading chief among them. The drop – which recruiters put in the region of 10% to 15% – hasn’t been triggered by the political crisis in Hong Kong. It’s mainly due to slowing economic growth in Greater China, and restructuring drives at firms such as Deutsche Bank and HSBC, which are culling 18,000 and 4,000 jobs, respectively, globally. Deutsche, for example, cut its Asian equities team in July. “There’s been a slight decrease in front-end roles like equity analysts within investment banks, although back-office IB recruitment has stayed on par with previous years,” says Lam.

The long-term prognosis for the Hong Kong job market remains unclear. “If the Chinese army is deployed against the pro-democracy movement, banks may start to reconsider Hong Kong as their Asian HQ because there would be little differentiation between HK and the mainland,” says a second headhunter, who also asked to remain anonymous. “But I think we’re a long way from that. Hong Kong may be a smaller cash cow to China than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still a cash cow. And most China-focused bankers wouldn’t want to relocate to Singapore – it’s five or six hours’ flight from China and could never match the connectivity to China that Hong Kong has.”

Image credit: Nikada, Getty

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AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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