Banking on literature
Hang Seng chief Andrew Fung has found his love of the classics has come in handy when communicating in his competitive world
By day, Hang Seng Bank director Andrew Fung Hau-chung lives the life of a high-flying financier. By night, the works of Shelley or Shakespeare are more likely to preoccupy him than currency cross rates or bond swaps.
The veteran banker, who now heads Hang Seng's investment, insurance and treasury operations, has seen many ups and downs in the city's banking industry.
In fact, every time interest rates move or when Beijing announces new plans about yuan trading, his phone rings hot from reporters wanting a "quote".
Few would guess that his early ambitions were far removed from the world of ledgers and loans.
Born and raised as the only child of an accountant father, the young Fung studied English literature and translation at the University of Hong Kong.
Besides Shakespeare, he likes Jacobean playwrights such as John Webster and John Ford. His graduation paper was an analysis of the English translation of the classic Chinese novel The Story of the Stone and the names of the principal female characters.
"I spent a long time studying why some maids' names were translated as Aroma, Skybright, Crimson or Musk," Fung said in his office.
Eighty per cent of his university classmates opted to teach English but Fung wanted to be an academic specialising in English literature. But after learning there were few job opportunities in the field, he became a banker.
"During a summer internship at a US bank I found out the trading room was not so boring and the pay curve of a banker looked pretty promising," he said. "It was only after I joined it that I learned there were also a lot of hardships as a banker, and there were a lot of pressure and lay-offs in the industry."
After a stint with a German bank, Fung moved to France's Societe Generale for six years, before joining HSBC's Wardley in 1991, where he was appointed spokesman on interest rate movements and foreign exchange trading.
While forex trading and treasury became his career, his study of the classics was a not a waste.
"In the early 1990s, the Chinese economy had started to pick up and my language skills in Putonghua and my study of literature became useful to communicate with mainland bankers and officials," he said.
"Many of my colleagues at the bank studied economics and finance but I have a different educational background as many of my literature professors spoke Putonghua. Such a unique background helped me to exchange views with mainland bankers, which proved what I learnt at university became very useful in my career."
Fung left HSBC to join the Commonwealth Bank of Australia from 1996 to 2002, during which time he had to deal with the global financial crisis attacking Asian currencies, and again he became the go-to banker for comments.
After a stint at DBS from 2002 to 2006, he joined Hang Seng Bank on the invitation of then chief executive Raymond Or Ching-fai. "Mr Or had a big influence on me as he let me expand my career from treasury to management of investment and insurance. That was a big breakthrough," Fung said.
Fung has seen a lot of changes in the industry over the past three decades. "When I first worked as a trader, the trading room was so noisy that traders had to use a phone to trade or yell out to other traders to buy and sell large transactions," he said. "But now, one can trade billions of foreign currencies in minutes by simply clicking the mouse on the computer. Trading has become very quiet as everything is now done electronically."
Traders' qualifications have also changed. Fung said a trader did not need higher education but a "trading instinct". Now, many trades are based on index tracking or computer modelling. So Hang Seng now hires graduates with doctorates in mathematics to handle it.
"Traders need a balance of guts, greed and caution. One needs guts to trade and a desire to make money from the trading. But if the traders do not have a sense of caution, they can easily become rouge traders who make bets too aggressively and eventually may bring the bank down. We have seen many past examples, such as the collapse of Barings in the mid-1990s," Fung said.
Fung plays tennis and likes reading. Besides books on Buddhism, he also likes urban love stories from Ira Ishida and historical fiction writer Baku Yumemakura. Recently, he returned to his university to read Keats and Shelley.
"When I meet up with my university friends who are teaching English and literature, I am a stranger as I work in a different field from them. I have to read to keep up conversation with them," he said.