Chow's HKEx exit revives question of talent shortage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 January, 2010, 12:00am

At 5.30pm yesterday, Paul Chow Man-yiu finally waved goodbye to Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing and a legacy that comprises a HK$157 billion market capitalisation, an unrivalled 71 per cent return on equity and a blog filled with praises from insiders and outsiders.

What will he be doing after retiring? If he holds to the norm, he will be perfecting the national art of mahjong, reading Chinese literature, travelling the world and funding some charities, while enjoying the influence and pay of a few directorships.

No public service? Not according to the norm.

That has been the case for most retiring senior financial regulators, whether at the Hong Kong exchange, the Securities and Futures Commission or the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

With the exception of one or two, they disappeared into the private sector with little engagement in the public sector, not even an appointment to an advisory body or committee.

Unlike in the United States where top talent go in and out of the exchange, banks, regulatory bodies and think tanks - or on the mainland, where retired technocrats are given think-tank or advisory posts - ours are seldom 'reused'.

That is disturbing. These people are among the early, if not first, batch of domestically groomed regulators who have spent years getting to know the industry and the game. They have worked with mainland officials daily and developed knowledge as well as guanxi in the system along the way.

At a time when our financial industry is trying to find a new engine of growth and working on a new relationship with the market up north, these are invaluable assets. (Many of them, including two former SFC chairmen and one minister, have been appointed advisers by Beijing.)

Yet, we have them left idle. Why?

I asked around and got some explanations.

First, many say they have had enough as a public servant. I am sure some have had their fill, but many remain interested in public policy.

Once a month, a dozen former regulators gather in Central. It's supposed to be a social occasion. Instead, it often turns into a forum on public policies. Views are exchanged, frustration is aired, alternatives are discussed. Government officials occasionally 'drop by' to say hello. 'But as we always say at the end of the gathering, 'It is no longer our business',' said one of the attendants.

Second, the presence of their predecessors could tie the hands of newcomers in their attempt to undo any mistake or explore new policies. Imagine what a difficult time his successor, Charles Li Xiaojia, will have if Chow becomes a non-executive board member of HKEx. Yes. But that only justifies not keeping the predecessor in the same institution, not on any other public body.

Besides, the government did not seem to have any problem with a shadow leader in the case of Charles Lee Yeh-kwong. In 2007, upon retiring from the chairmanship of the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority, Lee was appointed as an adviser by the board.

Third, a clear departure from government will avoid any conflict of role. Imagine making Chow (who at HKEx was regulated by the SFC) the non-executive chairperson of the SFC (the regulator).

But this is a funny argument, especially for anyone who has followed the career path of former civil servant Alan Lai Nin. Lai, then commissioner of industry, was named head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1999. But three years later, he rejoined the civil service as an undersecretary. In April last year, he was made ombudsman to check on government mistakes.

Fourth, people argue, their record has not been good. There are two aspects to this: First, they have not been doing a good job, which may be true in some cases but not all. Second, they have antagonised higher officials. Given the nature of our regulatory system, that is not surprising.

Under the three-tier regulatory system (the government, HKEx and the SFC), officials keep a distance from the policies and the responsibility that follows. Yet, in reality, they are very involved. Therefore, it is always a difficult task balancing between politics and market for our regulators.

In this sense, Chow certainly has a lot of tales to share. He has said no to a number of government initiatives on the grounds of shareholder interests. Top officials are said to be angry.

In our political system, where ministers and officials treasure safety over anything, that may well spell the end of one's public life.

Fifth, to quote a former official, government appointment is an art. It is about knowing which developers want which seats for his men. It is about who hates who. It's about balancing between different parties. It's about horse trading.

Whatever the reason, the result is a shortage of financial talent in public service.

Examples are ample. There was the desperate search for the SFC chairman in 2005 which was not settled until the last minute. There was the appointment to the HKEx board of people who were already loaded with a dozen public jobs.

In fact, if you take a pair of scissors, cut the lists of government appointees into pieces, blindfold yourself and pick five pieces, I will bet HK$100 that you will come across one name twice.

Another challenge caused by our talent shortage is on the horizon. By this spring, three exchange heavyweights will be retiring. They are chairman Ronald Arculli and non-executive directors Laura Cha Shih May-lung and Moses Cheng Mo-chi. All have served the two-term maximum. Who to fill their shoes?

No, I am not campaigning for any public appointment for Chow. He has more than enough fans to do that. I am campaigning for Hong Kong.