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Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA)

The Norman conquests

From humble beginnings to sitting on top of the banking world, low-key Monetary Authority chief is highly regarded for his operational skills

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 4:12pm

As a boy, Hong Kong Monetary Authority chief executive Norman Chan Tak-lam wasn't given many toys.

But he had a plentiful supply of pencils and stationery awarded to him by his teachers for his outstanding academic work.

The 58-year-old is now among the world's highest-paid central bankers, with a pay package of more than HK$8 million last year. Chan, of course, can afford all the toys he wants now, but the low-profile banker still appreciates those simple gifts of yesteryear.

Situated on the top floor of Two IFC, with a spectacular view over Victoria Harbour, Chan's office has no fancy furniture or decorations but the walls are lined with books on banking and finance.

Chan, who wears a plain black suit and glasses, talks about his memories over a cup of Chinese tea served in white ceramic cups.

"I was born in Hong Kong when it was still a small city. I remember there was only one telephone for several families who lived together in the same apartment," he says.

"That was a time when most Hong Kong people could only afford a simple and basic lifestyle. I never felt poor as everybody grew up in a similar way."

The young Chan never dreamt of being a banker. "I only wanted to study well and then get a good job so my parents could have a better life," he recalls.

When he graduated from Chinese University with a social science degree, he wanted to be an academic. "I really like study but I lost out to another classmate who got the only spot in a sponsored programme for further study in England. I gave up further study to find a job."

He joined the Hong Kong government as an administrative officer in 1976.

After working in various departments, in 1991 he became deputy director of the Office of the Exchange Fund, which manages the local reserve. Joseph Yam Chi-kwong was director.

Chan assisted Yam in setting up the Hong Kong Monetary Authority by combining the Office of the Exchange Fund and the Banking Commissioner's office in 1993. Chan became Yam's right-hand man as deputy chief executive for 12 years until taking sabbatical leave in 2005.

After a brief stint as vice-chairman for Asia of Standard Chartered Bank, Chan became then-chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's office director until going back to the HKMA to take the top job in October 2009 when Yam retired.

It is inevitable that people will compare the two central bankers. Yam is more high-profile and outspoken. Chan is more low-key but is praised by bankers for his operational skills.

"Joseph Yam was the mastermind on many financial projects but it is Norman Chan who brought these ideas to reality. Chan knows how to establish something from scratch and he attends to the details of a complicated financial system," said a local banker who did not want to be named.

Anthony Wu, chairman of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, describes Chan as "very sharp and someone with a long-term vision".

The projects that Chan has been involved with at the HKMA include the discount window mechanism to handle the banking system's liquidity management, the real-time settlement system among banks; and the introduction of the Exchange Fund bills and notes programme to expand the bond market.

He also helped the HKMA host the World Bank annual conference in 1997 - a chance for the new central bank to make its name.

Since 2004, Chan, who is well connected to mainland officials, has helped the local banking sector develop the yuan business and establish Hong Kong as a offshore yuan trading centre.

In recent years he has toured London, Sydney and Tokyo to promote yuan trading and relaxed rules to encourage companies to issue dim sum bonds in Hong Kong.

Two weeks ago the ban on allowing non-residents to open yuan bank accounts in the city was lifted.

Chan is proud of his role in stabilising Hong Kong's financial system. He said the lack of a central bank led to several bank runs in the late 1980s and prompted the city to set up the HKMA to bring the city up to international regulatory standards.

The authority's power is considerable - it has a mandate to use the local reserve Exchange Fund, which now stands at HK$2.5 trillion, and is able to defend the local currency and maintain the stability of Hong Kong's financial markets.

At the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, Chan and other officials decided to spend HK$118 billion from the Exchange Fund to buy blue chips to back the stock market and fend off speculators trying to attack the dollar and stock market.

"It was not an easy decision, but we decided we had to do so when the market became distorted by speculators," he said. "At that time we were criticised by many overseas central bankers. Now, after the latest global financial crisis, many Western governments also have seen the need to bail out their banks. It proved what we did in 1998 was right."

Chan says that after 1998, he and other officials lobbied the authorities to tighten control on over-the-counter derivatives. It was only after the 2008 global financial crisis that other central banks agreed there should be more regulation in this area.

"As a central banker, one can not only look at what is happening now but also take a longer-term view," Chan said. "If we regulate the banks only when a financial crisis arrives, that is too late. We have to identify potential risks and introduce proper regulation years ahead to stop them taking too-high a risk, so as to prevent a disaster."

Besides work, Chan likes reading and playing sport.

"I not only read about finance but also history books such as those about the Qing dynasty," he said. "I also like sport. I play basketball with my colleagues and my friends."