Opinion: Will finance workers heed Hong Kong’s call to return?

If the SFC clamps down on financial institutions, employees will not have a choice but to return, but it won’t help matters for the brain drain afflicting the industry.
Opinion: Will finance workers heed Hong Kong’s call to return?

Most Hong Kong residents have not left the territory for close to three years now.

Those who do leave Hong Kong temporarily tend to do a world tour of sorts, stopping by Singapore, Australia and perhaps Korea to meet clients, then visiting family in the UK for instance for weeks on end before returning to Hong Kong – all to make that 3+4 day quarantine worthwhile.

You might ask: “Why do we say ‘3+4’ instead of ‘seven?”. Well, it’s so we feel a little better that instead of a seven-day stay in the same hotel room, we get to do just three days in a hotel, before moving to a different hotel – if you do not have a residence in the city – for an additional four days.

The good news is that for the second tranche, you do get to leave the room as long as you do not visit high-risk venues – like restaurants.

A recent conversation reminded me that, for a time, the mandatory quarantine arrangement was 21 days for incoming travellers. At the peak – or lowest, I should say – of quarantine rules, incoming travellers had to serve a mandatory seven days at the notorious Penny’s Bay facility, followed by 14 days at a designated quarantine hotel for those arriving from high-risk countries such as the UK and US.

Hiring has become difficult for the financial centre, as expatriates and locals have moved overseas, in many cases permanently. New hires have been reluctant to move into Hong Kong, as other Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Korea began lifting border restrictions.

Hong Kong’s population fell by a record 121,500 in the 12 months that ended in June, and residents withdrew HK$2 billion ($254.80 million) from their pensions (an indication of permanent departures) in the first quarter of this year.

Those who haven’t taken the plunge to move away permanently, have worked out temporary arrangements with their companies to work abroad. Anecdotally, I know of a handful of residents who have enrolled their children with schools in the UK as they wait for Hong Kong to lift restrictions and assure parents they will not shut schools down anymore.

The Securities and Future Commission (SFC) has taken notice, and is reportedly talking to finance firms to bring back their licenced staff.

Will these employees heed the call? Maybe. In the short term, they will have no choice but to do what their companies, as directed by the SFC, tell them to. Jobs aren’t found overnight either.

But in the long run, if travel in and out of Hong Kong continues to be a hindrance to business, and parents still live in fear of school shutdowns, what’s stopping these highly educated, effectively bilingual, highly mobile finance professionals from getting jobs in other countries?

Singapore’s new visa that opens a pathway for high earners to get a five-year employment pass doesn’t help things for Hong Kong either.

Asked if the recent moves of executives into Singapore will be short term, industry insiders tell me that it depends on how we define “short term”.

“They’ve moved their families here, we’re talking about high-level executives in their 40s and 50s, likely with kids whose lives they’ve had to uproot. Have you tried uprooting a teenager’s life? It’s not something you do lightly,” one said.

The territory’s new chief executive John Lee plans to eradicate the mandatory hotel quarantine, which will no doubt help with the city’s competitiveness, particularly with a high-profile financial summit and the Rugby Sevens tournament coming up in November.

I’ve recently made the move from Hong Kong to Singapore myself, although as the editor of an asset management trade publication, I’m probably not a big concern for the Hong Kong government. But for the other talents still employed by Hong Kong finance firms, they will need some convincing to return home for good.

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