China deals on the rise, but bankers hard to find

 @ibtimes
on August 31 2007 9:20 AM

Chinese demand has already fuelled booms in markets from copper to shipping, but the rise of the world's fastest growing economy is also driving up prices for another hot commodity: bilingual bankers.

Banks are struggling to find enough candidates with fluent Mandarin and English to accommodate their expansion plans in China, which is poised to leapfrog Hong Kong as Asia's biggest centre for initial public offerings.

Securing banking talent in China has been a problem for years, but the matter is more pressing than ever with the country starting to spend its $1.33 trillion of foreign currency reserves on overseas deals.

Hedge funds and private equity firms, which are starting to source deals in China, are also poaching bankers from Wall Street firms, making the hunt for already scarce talent even tougher.

After China's decades of isolation from global trade, English is not widely spoken, and few non-Chinese master the notoriously difficult language.

There are people who understand the product and people who understand the people, but a dearth of those who understand both, said Adrian Ezra, chief executive of international financial recruitment firm Execuzen.

Demand outstrips supply 10 to one, he said.

If you are a senior, or even a junior, Chinese specialist you can practically write your own ticket, Ezra added.

HIRING SPREES

An expected wave of foreign currency-funded overseas takeovers and a proposed end to a ban on foreign acquisitions of Chinese brokerages have helped spark hiring sprees by banks such as Citigroup Inc. and HSBC Holdings Plc.

One Chinese investment banking chairman said his European firm had more than tripled local hires to about 20 a year.

We are about one-third short of staff at associate level and now have to pay a bigger premium in luring execution people from other banks, he said.

Other emerging markets are also presenting troubles for banks in search of dealmakers, but China poses a unique challenge.

It is easier to move Russians back to Russia or Indians back to India. The Middle Easterners are happy to move to Dubai. But you cannot find the Chinese, Ezra said.

Many Chinese immigrants are Cantonese speakers and unfamiliar with China's official language of Mandarin.

Outside of Shanghai and Beijing, English speakers are scarce, which boutique bank First Line Capital found when it opened earlier this month in the country's largest city of Chongqing.

The language issue is a very sore point, First Line founder Simon Erblich said. Just ordering room service here is a problem.

Bankers stressed the need not just for language skills, but also the ability to bridge cultural differences.

I have worked in China and Russia for many years. I don't speak either language, but I have learnt to understand the Russians, said one investment banker, who requested anonymity. I still don't understand the Chinese.

LIFESTYLE ISSUES

Another challenge in wooing employees to mainland China is lifestyle as many candidates are deterred by pollution, cultural divides, high taxes and strict control over politics and media.

Even for Hong Kong Chinese, there are differences, said one bilingual employee at a top bank in Beijing. Mainland China is a much more traditional society.

To overcome such hurdles, banks often put sector and country experts together, instead of finding one person to fit a role.

HSBC, UBS and Goldman Sachs, three of the most active western banks in China, all declined to comment on their hiring strategies, but universities say most banks are targeting western students of Chinese and, more importantly, the growing number of Chinese studying overseas.

The number of westerners learning Chinese is tiny but growing. British universities received 841 applications to study the language in 2007, up threefold from the previous year.

Western students at U.S. Ivy League universities or top-tier British universities studying Mandarin will be on the radar of banks out here, said John Appleby, managing director of Hong Kong search firm WoodHamill.

Stuart McClelland, a 26-year-old Briton who has worked in China and Taiwan, backs that up. He was recently contacted by a fellow graduate in Chinese studies now working at Goldman Sachs about interviewing for analyst jobs in mainland China.

I was told the bank was basically desperate for anyone who spoke Chinese and had a remote interest in banking, he said.

McClelland says, however, that he isn't interested.

(Additional reporting by Daisy Ku)

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