Recruiters say ‘no amount of money’ can lure bankers to Hong Kong

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LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Hong Kong’s status as a magnet for international financiers is cratering as firms struggle to coax traders and bankers to move to the once vibrant trading hub.

Seeking to fill jobs, headhunters are finding they can only recruit candidates who are already in Hong Kong. The crunch comes as the former British colony is dealing with a growing outflow of expatriates who are frustrated with the city’s strict zero-Covid-19 policies. They’re abandoning a city where low taxes, ease of travel, top class schools and a vibrant night-life once proved a potent lure.

For some candidates, “no amount of money is going to convince a candidate to go to Hong Kong,” said Jason Kennedy, founder of London-based recruiting firm Kennedy Group, which hires traders for hedge funds with offices across Asia. “They would rather choose Singapore. It’s a lifestyle balance, even for traders.”

Business groups have been sounding a warning that the city’s status as a financial centre is increasingly at risk and all signs now point to an accelerating outflow of experienced bankers and traders.

Visas for financial service workers halved from 2018 to 2020 and probably declined further last year, according to government data through September.

Officials this month clamped down further as the Omicron variant emerged, forcing close contacts into government camps, closing schools and banning flights, on top of the 21 days of mandated quarantine for incoming travellers.

Authorities maintain their top priority is to keep infections and deaths at a minimum, as well as first opening travel to mainland China.

For the city’s economy, the stakes are high. Hong Kong has more than 273,000 financial services jobs, and has long been the Asian hub for banking giants such as HSBC Holdings and Goldman Sachs Group. It is also the largest US dollar funding centre after London and New York, with banking assets equal to nine times its gross domestic product, according to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said this week international travel restrictions are now the top concern for companies in a survey. The quarantine rules for travellers make it difficult for head offices to operate, with about 44 per cent of respondents saying they are likely to leave.

The biggest bank in the city, HSBC, last year showed its continued commitment to the city by relocating one of its global co-heads of investment banking, as well as its heads of commercial banking and wealth from London.

Still, one of them, Greg Guyett, the co-chief executive of the investment bank, is for now stuck in London partly due to the quarantine rules. The lender has also warned its Hong Kong traders that one of the main risks to business continuity is now the city’s quarantine policy.

Some of those that have chosen to leave the city briefly have experienced a whirlwind of calamities upon return. One banker considering joining the exodus is Nicolas, who spoke on condition only his first name be used. He tested positive in Europe in December and recovered but tested positive again on return to Hong Kong and was placed in the hospital and then at a make-shift quarantine centre at the Asia World Expo. His two-year-old daughter also tested positive and was sent to hospital, while his wife was sent to Penny’s Bay quarantine centre for two weeks as a close contact.

He is now considering leaving this year.

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