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Regulatory shake-ups bring compliance professionals to the fore

The new financial environment is changing the attributes banks look for when recruiting talent.

The world of banking and finance was probably never as dull as it was once painted in popular media, but in the past six or seven years - with crises, changing rules and new opportunities following in swift succession - the industry has rarely been far from the headlines.

Throw the digital technology revolution into the mix and it is easy to see why banking and finance companies have had to rethink much of their investment and recruitment plans.

The Basel III Accord was developed to bolster global financial regulation in the wake of the 2007-08 crisis by increasing banks' liquidity and decreasing their use of leverage.

Tim Pagett, national global financial services industry leader at Deloitte China, says the implementation of Basel III has raised a number of challenges for banks operating in Hong Kong and across Asia. "[This is] especially as the amendments to the accord were largely designed to address the crisis-related problems driven by participants in more sophisticated financial markets, [which have] high reliance on wholesale markets for funding and a greater appetite for leverage driven by derivative trading and investment strategies."

Although Pagett believes conforming to Basel III will put a brake on the banking industry's global rate of growth, he feels its requirements are less onerous for this region than for the West.

"For the most part, Asian banks are still heavily reliant on their retail deposit base, and less reliant on wholesale funding. As a result, there has historically been an implied level of control over leverage and liquidity that is now being made more transparent and systematic in order to meet the rule requirements. Clearly, there is a cost to this, against which there would appear to be minimal tangible benefit other than creating assurance that the risk levels are low."

Jacinta Low, OCBC Bank's head of HR planning, explains how compliance with Basel III plays out in terms of the personnel her company looks to hire.

"We plan our recruitment for the different divisions in line with our identified areas of growth. One case in point is that as we start to prepare for the new Basel III regulatory environment, we have over the years been steadily expanding and deepening our pool of risk management professionals. Today, potential new hires for our risk management team should not only have regulatory exposure, and strong analytical and quantitative skills, they should also have a forward-looking and strategic mindset."

Adam Jeffes, manager of global banking and markets at recruitment specialists Morgan McKinley Hong Kong, also notes the effect the changing regulatory framework is having on job opportunities.

"The single biggest driver behind patterns of recruitment in financial services at present is changing regulation. New capital rules have a significant impact on profitability for certain business units, particularly trading, so banks have been considering which businesses they want to be involved in and are changing their business structure and hiring plans accordingly.

"At the same time, changes to broader regulations on anti-money laundering, living wills and legal entity design, and transfer pricing are [affecting] all areas of the bank, from front office to settlements, both in terms of the time and cost of implementing the changes. It is having a huge impact in terms of how banks allocate headcount, remunerate specialists in these areas, and in turn, the demand for these roles from juniors and new joiners."

He adds that with investors continuing to press banks for growth in their own capital, and with less opportunity to leverage, banks will be forced to reduce costs and minimise reputational risk. "With this in mind, changing regulations will inevitably result in job losses for some bankers and opportunities for others."

Some of the groundwork for the planned globalisation of the yuan is already underway and as the process gathers pace it will have a large impact on the local banking scene.

"Banks, especially the ones with significant operations in Asia, have been building up their offshore RMB deposits, settlement, financing and capital-markets capabilities substantially over the past few years," Pagett says. "The key focus areas have been around trade, foreign exchange, RMB deposits and dim sum bonds.

"Central banks are also readying for the internationalisation of the RMB - 25 central banks have shown support for the RMB by signing bilateral swap arrangements with the People's Bank of China. This is a symbolic, yet significant, gesture from the central banks of their acceptance and support of the RMB."

Pagett explains that as the nature and extent of products continues to develop beyond those historically associated with trade flows, significant investment goes into the enhancement of risk management and trading systems to cater for position-taking within the currency against major pairings.

"For me, the most interesting development is how Chinese banks are now extending their reach - both organically, through opening branches across the globe in all key cities, and inorganically, through acquisitions to position [themselves] in European, African and South American markets. Clearly there is a nexus between the expansion plans of the banks and the increasing use of the RMB as a medium for exchange."

While the slowdown in the rate of economic growth on the mainland may cause jitters locally, on the upside the hope is that the launch of the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect scheme will strengthen Hong Kong's role as the route into the national economy for international investors. The scheme allows local and mainland investors to trade and settle shares listed on either market.

Taking a wider view of the banking and finance industry in Hong Kong, Jeffes says that headcounts in front offices are comparatively stable at the moment, with the majority of mandates being replacement hires.

"In our sector, there is always demand for well-educated Chinese candidates with overseas employment experience. Most support functions are seeing a squeeze on headcount. The contract employment market, particularly within finance and operations, has become busier over the past three years. In banking, compliance and risk continue to be busy areas, and in Hong Kong, insurance, asset management and private banks continue to see headcount growth."

Jeffes sees banking and finance businesses continuing to look to find the right balance between the cost savings of off-shoring support functions and the reputational risks this might entail. "The headcount in support functions continues to head to low-cost locations, but at the same time, the demands from the business regulators are increasing.

"Given the reputational risks involved, companies will continue to employ onshore to develop, implement and maintain processes before offshoring them. As such, demand for permanent staff in these areas may be decreasing, but our temporary and fixed-term contract business in Hong Kong is busier than ever."