Three years after leaving Hong Kong’s securities watchdog, its highly respected former deputy chief executive, Alexa Lam, has taken a role that should help boost the fund industry’s clout and interaction with regulators in Asia.

The Investment Company Institute (ICI), a US-based fund industry lobby group, has appointed Lam as its new Asia-Pacific CEO in Hong Kong in a widely welcomed move that will take effect on October 1. The current incumbent, Yang Qiumei, is resigning to join her family's business.

“ICI has not been very active in Asia to date. That is likely to change quickly with Alexa at the helm,” said Effie Vasilopolous, Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Sidley Austin. “She is known for her proactivity, and the industry will no doubt expect her to be as active and engaged as she was at the SFC [Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission]."

The appointment is a “real coup” for ICI, Vasilopoulos told AsianInvestor. “Attracting such a high-profile executive in Asia will undoubtedly fast-track development of their brand and profile in the region.”

Alexa Lam

Certainly, market participants now expect ICI – which carries out its international work through ICI Global – to have a stronger relationship with the SFC in particular, but also with authorities in China and elsewhere in the region.

ICI clearly sees Asia, and particularly China, as a priority, noted Philippa Allen, chief executive of Hong Kong-based consultancy ComplianceAsia. 

Moreover, the new role is perfectly suited to Lam’s regulatory experience, so it’s unlikely to have come as a big surprise to the industry, said Vasilopolous, Sidley Austin's global co-leader of investment funds, advisers and derivatives group.

Stewart Aldcroft, Hong Kong-based senior adviser for Citi's Asia-Pacific investor services unit, agreed that Lam “upgrades the positioning of ICI Global in Asia Pacific”.

CHINA RELATIONSHIPS

The SFC will certainly respect ICI with Lam at the regional helm, and she will also help channel ideas, improve communication and build trust with the Chinese authorities, said Josephine Chung, founder and director of Hong Kong-based consultancy CompliancePlus.

ICI has a lot of authority in the US, as it represents a “huge” amount of assets under management, Chung told AsianInvestor. The people on its board are “truly influential”, she added, and the hope is that it can use its authority to have a meaningful impact in Hong Kong and Asia.

ICI represents regulated funds globally, and its member firms manage total assets of $22 trillion in the US and $7.6 trillion in other jurisdictions.

However, ICI may struggle to influence Chinese regulators directly, Chung noted. “China has its own way: if they need ICI, they will use them, but not otherwise.” Lobby groups carry less weight in countries prone to government intervention in markets, she added.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong does have a fund trade body in the form of the Hong Kong Investment Funds Association. But ICI can potentially work as a more effective pressure group than HKIFA, said industry sources who asked to remain anonymous.

One issue in Hong Kong is that ICI focuses on regulated funds themselves, and most of those in the territory are either under European Ucits vehicles – with decision making and lobbying usually done at head office – or Cayman Islands funds, said ComplianceAsia's Allen. Hence, she added, regulatory concerns in Hong Kong tend to focus more on asset manager issues than the funds themselves. 

"As Alexa was key to the [Hong Kong-China] mutual recognition scheme which requires eligible funds to be domiciled in Hong Kong," noted Allen, "it makes sense for her to be involved in this."

BIG-HITTER

Lam had spent 16 years at the SFC before stepping down in February 2015, and as deputy CEO she had overseen the investment products unit and the international and China divisions.

She proved very difficult to replace. The watchdog is understood to have sought a replacement for months and ultimately ended up splitting the role into separate parts. 

First, former Hong Kong Monetary Authority official Julia Leung came in as executive director of investment products. Then she switched to the role of executive director of intermediaries and licensing in February 2016, with Christina Choi moving to oversee investment products in July 2016.

Meanwhile, at the same time as it announced Lam’s hire, ICI said it had promoted Patrice Bergé-Vincent to managing director of ICI Global, to direct its international programme in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. On January 1, 2019, he will replace Dan Waters, who has been managing director of ICI Global since its launch in October 2011.

Bergé-Vincent joined ICI Global as managing director for Europe in April 2015.