Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Still room for moves amid belt-tightening

The job market in the commercial and investment banking sector remains tough. While there has not been as much expansion as in previous years, banks are looking to keep headcount levels steady while upgrading where necessary.

“We continue to look for talented people for front-office roles, with a focus on our sales desk and investment banking teams,” says Brett McGonegal, executive managing director and CEO of Reorient Financial Markets. “We have also upgraded our operations and finance teams.”

Banks also seem to be cutting back on fringe benefits that many employees enjoyed in years past. “For example, housing allowances are shrinking,” McGonegal says. “We expect this trend to continue. However, overall salaries remain high at the bulge-bracket banks. Most people we talk with are looking for higher base salaries, but seem resigned to the fact that the larger bonus payouts are coming to an end.”

Marc Burrage, regional director of Hays in Hong Kong, says there has been “strong and steady demand across the commercial banking space”. He also points out that there is a high volume of new relationship and product vacancies due to banks returning to traditional products to grow lifeline revenue streams.

But banks have been pulling back from the corporate finance and equity markets, Burrage adds. “Redundancy plans were announced and equity capital markets, research and equity trading coverage desks were closed,” he says. “This has obviously created some anxiety in the industry.”

This slowdown has been offset by new Chinese start-ups and boutique firms focusing on acquisitions and advisory deals. These firms have recruited legal and compliance candidates as well as senior coverage bankers, mostly in corporate banking execution roles.

“We have seen a slight increase in the number of newly created jobs in banking,” Burrage says. “There is still a steady flow of candidates in most areas due to previous redundancies and reorganisation plans.”

Burrage expects that the fourth quarter will see high demand for relationship managers with four to 10 years of experience, credit analysts with five to 15 years of experience, institutional sales and business developers, and investment banking analysts or associates with strong financial modelling skills. “In investment banking, employers are more likely to show interest in candidates with a CFA [Chartered Financial Analyst] qualification,” Burrage says. “This is particularly so for the larger, global players. Some financial institutions or investment management firms do require it for certain positions, others see it as an add-on.”

There has been increasing competition among foreign banks with operations in Hong Kong, such as North American, Japanese and Australian banks focused on the Asian corporate coverage business, which has traditionally been dominated by home-grown banks.

“This created opportunities for bilingual candidates and lured talent away from top regional banks,” Burrage says. “Those who were willing to make the move to start client portfolios from scratch or leverage prior client relationships often secured lucrative packages.”

ConnectedGroup director Kate Harper says that excellent salespeople and high-potential relationship managers (RMs) that are sought after by both developing and developed businesses are being recognised with lucrative changes to their commission structures which can make them about 10 per cent better off. “Basic salaries have seen increments this year as businesses continue to thrive in the North Asia market,” she says.

“There has been some impressive investment into systems from businesses such as Standard Chartered and Citigroup,” Harper says, adding that there have been some “interesting moves at the top, especially in the development of Asia liquidity offerings”.

“China is a key focus, especially from a trade finance perspective, making Putonghua speakers even more sought after by foreign banks,” Harper says. “Businesses like China Everbright and Bank of China continue to take advantage of the clientele of their motherships in China to develop strong offshore platform for Chinese businesses.”

Employers view strong networks, proven track record, deep product knowledge and Asia language skills as more important than hard skills when evaluating candidates, she adds.

And what about career tracks?

“Sales and relationship managers are in short supply and [there is] high demand across Hong Kong and the mainland. We have noted an interesting trend when working on a retail banking search: Half of senior relationship managers in retail banking are looking to exit the industry. Of these, about 30 per cent are looking to transfer to private or commercial banking,” Harper says.

“Senior retail-banking RMs are working with many of the SME business owners – both commercial banking clients and often high net worth individuals – but of this group, there seems to be a limited bridge between these industries,” she concludes.