Bank of China

Back on the financial deck

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2012, 12:00am

After keeping a low profile for some years, Executive Council member and veteran financial regulator Laura Cha Shih May-lung will be back in the limelight again after her appointment to chair a task force to set up the planned Financial Services Development Council.

Cha's appointment to oversee the creation of the new council - which will promote Hong Kong's role as an international financial centre - came as no surprise to the market.

Cha, 62, had long been tipped for an appointment to a top post at Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEx) or the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC). She was also talked about as a contender to become the first woman financial secretary of the city.

'I definitely had no intention to take up a full-time position again, although I was willing to take up duties to serve the public,' Cha said.

Cha trained as a lawyer in the United States and returned to Hong Kong with her family in 1985.

She joined the SFC in 1991 as assistant director for corporate finance and became a key figure in bringing mainland enterprises to the Hong Kong stock exchange. She became deputy chairwoman and executive director of the SFC in 1998, a position she held until she resigned in February 2001. During this period she worked on the merger of the stock exchange and the futures exchange and the three related clearing houses, which were eventually united under the umbrella of HKEx in 2000.

She served as vice-chairwoman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) from 2001 to 2004, becoming the first non-mainlander to join the central government at vice-ministerial rank.

Colleagues described Cha as a knowledgeable and hard-working professional; and she was remembered with admiration for maintaining a confident and elegant presence in the office no matter how heavy her workload.

'I remembered Mrs Cha always looked fantastic,' said Angelina Kwan , who was hired by Cha in 1998 to join the SFC.

'Every time she entered a meeting packed with men in black suits, Mrs Cha would light up the room with her good fashion sense.'

After leaving the CSRC in August 2004, Cha returned to Hong Kong to take up an appointment as an executive councillor in the administration of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in 2004. She continued to serve in this capacity in the administration of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and was last week confirmed in the post by the latest chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

Reflecting on her experience at the coalface of regulatory issues in Hong Kong, Cha said the biggest change in her career was the attitude of international investment banks to Hong Kong.

'When I first joined the SFC in 1991, the banks did not take the Hong Kong market seriously. They called it a 'Mickey Mouse' market since, in their view, it was small and served only limited local needs.'

It was only after mainland companies started listing in the city in 1993 that Western banks began to pay more attention to Hong Kong, though they still considered it no more than a 'medium-sized' market that could not handle big deals.

But the listing of China's 'big four' state-owned banks on the Hong Kong market from 2005 to 2006 - with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China raising HK$124.95 billion from its listing - changed all that.

'After the big international players saw how the big four mainland banks could raise so much money via the Hong Kong market, they finally recognised the city as a match for London and New York,' she said.

Cha takes evident pride in being the person who suggested the use of the term 'H shares' to refer to the listings of mainland companies on the local market.

'I suggested the name. Initially, there was a proposal to call them C shares as there already were A and B shares on the mainland,' she said.

'But I felt C shares sounded like a third-grade stock. Someone suggested I shares for international shares, or O shares for overseas listing, but I preferred H shares to recognise Hong Kong.'

Until the last six months, Hong Kong was the biggest initial public offering market in the world for three years running. It has since dropped to seventh position.

Cha said HKEx should now attract more international listings, and this would be one of the objectives of the new council that she has the job of putting into place.

She said she supported the HKEx proposal to spend HK$16.6 billion to buy the London Metal Exchange (LME) to develop a commodities trading operation. Some have criticised the deal - which is awaiting LME shareholder approval - for being too expensive.

'It may be expensive but it fits with the strategy of developing commodities trading in the city,' she said.

'It is important for Hong Kong to not only enjoy our past achievements, but pursue new developments.'

Before embarking on her professional career Cha was a full-time housewife for six years, taking care of her two children in the United States.

'It was so hard to get help in the US, and as a mother of two I had to be a full-time housewife. I only started my career after my children went to school,' she said

It was during this time that she found she was interested in law, so she returned to her studies and qualified as a lawyer in the US before the whole family moved back to Hong Kong in 1985. She then went to work in a law firm before joining the SFC in 1991.

And the rest is history.

'I am happy I have a family and that I developed my career when I was very young so that I had the energy to handle all the hardship,' Cha said. 'Now my children have their own families and I have three grandchildren already. With good work and good family, my life is very satisfying.'