Executives at some western banks have been at pains to maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach to Hong Kong, as they play down suggestions that draconian COVID restrictions and political upheaval have wrought irreparable damage to the special administrative region.
Noel Quinn, group CEO at HSBC, encapsulated this positive spirit last month when he told journalists at the bank’s annual results presentation that the lockdowns and difficulties currently being faced by bankers in Hong Kong “are circumstances that many other countries have faced over the past two years and that it will not have a permanent negative impact on Hong Kong.”
But for many senior expat bankers covering the Asia-Pacific region, Hong Kong has become untenable as a location because of the COVID restrictions. One executive who asked to remain anonymous told eFinancialCareers that it's now impossible to do his job from Hong Kong.
“I have direct reports across the region, and I’ve not been able to visit any of my teams, or any of my clients, which makes it impossible to do my job.
“Most senior expat bankers like myself have left Hong Kong until the situation improves. In fact, I don’t know any senior bankers with regional responsibilities and families who are still here.
“Some senior bankers are temporarily relocating to their homes in Europe or the U.S.. But others who have been in Hong Kong for a long time have headed to Singapore, Thailand or Dubai. The Maldives are also a very popular spot at the moment.
“When will we return? The timeline is uncertain – it could be six months to a year, until China rolls out a vaccine that works.
“We’re hoping that the situation will be resolved because long-term having so much senior banking talent based outside Hong Kong is simply not sustainable. For now, banks are allowing staff to choose where they work, but over time there will be oversight and supervisory implications that arise when senior bankers are not physically on the ground.”
There’s a counterargument that Hong Kong has botched COVID, but remains an attractive international financial centre with a low tax rate. The optimistic scenario is that as in other jurisdictions, once a vaccine is rolled out, life will return more closely to normal.
The question is whether, longer term, the changing political landscape will undermine its status. There’s a feeling that Hong Kong has lost some of its prestige and autonomy.
Expat bankers are a dying breed in Hong Kong because at a junior level, banks only hire mandarin speakers, an executive at one U.S. bank said.
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