We heard an intriguing story recently that we are assured occurred at a well-known investment bank in Hong Kong. A relatively low-level ibanker was summoned to the human resources department during the recent cull and told that, although the bank was sorry to lose him, but what with the uncertain outlook and restructuring and so on, the bank had no choice but to let him go. After listening to the usual spiel, our somewhat chastened iber was shown the terms of his firing and was advised he could take three days to consider before signing. However, to the surprise of the HR officer, our young iber said he was happy to sign there and then. "But we'd rather you took some time to consider this," the officer insisted. But the iber was equally insistent and signed. He then collected his belongings and left.
Later that day, a somewhat senior iber by the same name in the company was mystified to discover that his e-mail and telephone links had been disconnected. After making inquiries, an equally mystified person from HR was surprised to learn he was still in the building. As you have probably gathered by now, it was the senior iber that should have been dismissed. Instead, a more junior employee was given a massive pay-off to leave.
A matter of timing
The Swiss watch industry, as with other luxury businesses, is feeling the draught from the slowdown in China. Reflecting on the industry's performance last year, Swiss Watch News notes that although the Swiss watch industry had "another vintage year", exports to China saw a spectacular slowdown. China is the third-biggest destination for Swiss watches, accounting for 1.6 billion Swiss francs (HK$13.3 billion) in exports. However, growth dived to 0.6 per cent last year from 50 per cent in 2011. This, it says diplomatically, was a result of "a cooling of consumer demand in China, due in particular to political factors". In other words, the crackdown on corruption. Hong Kong remains the biggest single source for Swiss watches, with exports totalling 4.4 billion francs, well ahead of second-placed US at 2.2 billion francs. But growth to Hong Kong also slowed, to 6.8 per cent, from more than 30 per cent previously. This presumably was also due to the same "political reasons" that affected the mainland.
Even the rich suffer from dirty air
In a further indication that pollution on the mainland really has people rattled, Alibaba Group founder and chief executive Jack Ma Yun told a conference that cancer would trouble every mainland family in 10 years. He was speaking at the 13th annual meeting of the Yabuli China Entrepreneurs Forum, the website GlobalVoices reports. Instead of talking about business, Ma dwelt on the mainland's pollution and health problems. "Thirty years ago, how many people knew somebody with cancer? Cancer was a rare word. Now it has become a common disease," he said. "Liver cancer may have something to do with [the polluted] water; lung cancer has something to do with our air; gastric cancer has something to do with our food." He continued in this gloomy vein, adding, "The privileged class has clean water, but they can't order clean air. I worry that we work so hard, and finally all we earn goes towards medical expenses. No matter how much money you make, if you can't enjoy the sunshine, it is really just a tragedy." His speech caused quite a stir on Weibo, triggering over 99,136 reposts and 16,676 comments.
We recently wrote about whether Barclays could change its culture and adapt to a more gentle, client-friendly approach. We see that IFRAsia has drawn attention to efforts by other banks to clean their reputations. Deutsche Bank has announced its "2015+" strategy and is pushing for "deliberate uncomfortable change". UBS has its own 2015 strategy, and the head of its investment banking unit said publicly that the industry had become "too arrogant, too self-convinced". So, is all this real or just spin for the consumption of the public, politicians and regulators? Investors, it seems, remain unimpressed, with 60 per cent saying in a recent Bloomberg survey they were not confident or just "somewhat confident" that banks were taking appropriate risks, while 29 per cent said big banks should be broken up.