Banks are quietly shifting Hong Kong staff or trading desks to Singapore as some bankers and traders look for greater flexibility following the COVID-19 pandemic and as tensions between China and the West rise.
“Is it happening? Yes, but no-one’s talking about it. One U.S. bank has recently moved a trading desk to Singapore,” said one headhunter based in Hong Kong.
Another head headhunter said that more bankers – particularly expat Australians - are choosing to re-locate to Singapore as a matter of personal choice, but his has more to do with the pandemic than any political considerations. One senior capital markets banker based in Hong Kong said: “I’ve not seen my family in Australia for a year because of COVID. More and more people are asking to relocate for personal reasons like that."
Other banks are slimming down as part of a strategy shift rather than a result of political factors. Westpac has is closing four branches in Asia as part of an international retrenchment while Commerzbank is closing its Hong Kong operation as part of its new business plan. The German bank has ‘mid-to-high double-digit’ staff numbers in Hong Kong, and it will consolidate its Asian sales activities in Singapore over the next three years.
Meanwhile, banks such as HSBC are beefing up their presence in South East Asia, but in addition to their existing presence.
Last month, China’s National People’s Congress voted to give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers, while Chinese officials have also hinted that it may eventually replace Hong Kong’s system of British common law. “If and when that happens that’s when people will shift,” one British expat said.
There’s no suggestion of a big exodus, however, particularly as deal volumes are booming in Hong Kong and international banks are waging the fiercest battle for talent for a decade. “It’s hard for westerners who watch the news to understand, but this is still a fantastic place to work by and large we’re happy in our expat bubble,” the expat added.
A spike in coronavirus cases following an outbreak at a gym used by expats last month exposed many expats to Hong Kong’s draconian quarantine laws for the first time, with some being sent to quarantine centres.
This is stricter than in Singapore, where close contacts go to centralized facilities only if their homes are unsuitable for isolation. However, another expat Hong Kong banker warned: “I had to quarantine in Singapore as part of a business trip last year. I was stuck in a hotel room and not allowed to leave. They brought meals and clean towels, but it was immensely frustrating.”
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