Shanghai faces taxing issue in tale of two cities
The overwhelming trump card Hong Kong holds in the struggle to be accepted as the financial capital of the nation boils down to 15 per cent
When discussing the growing rivalry between the financial centres of Shanghai and Hong Kong, some say the competition is more about personnel than about how many skyscrapers each city boasts.
One of the biggest edges that Hong Kong has in attracting financial talent - and one that Shanghai is unlikely to match in the near future - is the personal income tax rate. In Hong Kong, most people pay no more than 15 per cent, while in Shanghai the tab can reach 45 per cent.
When I mentioned to officials in the Shanghai government what a challenge such a high tax rate posed, some tried to argue that the salary levels in the financial industry in Hong Kong were much higher than in Shanghai.
So, they contended, while an employee might benefit from a lower tax bill, his employer would be spending more money on labour costs in Hong Kong than Shanghai. Really?
I know that Bao Fan, chairman of China Renaissance Partners, the mainland's biggest privately held investment bank, has been busy hiring for his new Hong Kong office.
I asked him about the difference in labour costs between Shanghai and Hong Kong.
As an employer, he said: "Initially, I was a bit worried but later I found the difference is actually very limited in terms of the amount of money - before tax - that I give to my employees."
Bao explained that financial industry employees in mainland cities could often find themselves getting a lot less than their counterparts in Hong Kong, but that was partly because their employers on the mainland already had deducted about half of their salaries in tax charges, certain mandatory insurance payments and other administrative costs that went to the government.
For example, for each employee in Shanghai an employer is required to pay at least three types of insurance - basic medical, retirement and unemployment - and contribute to a mandatory housing fund, from which the employee can later borrow to buy a home.
All things considered, those non-cash benefits required by the government can end up costing a white-collar worker in the financial industry up to several thousand yuan a month.
Hong Kong also has its pension scheme, widely known as the Mandatory Provident Fund.
However, thanks to its free-market system, employers have more options to choose medical coverage and other non-cash benefits than to just pay the government for all of this in advance.
Plus, Hong Kong has a reputation for a much greater level of efficiency than that in Shanghai or Beijing, where government bureaucracy is still a big headache for many multinational companies.
Some senior financial industry executives often joke that in Hong Kong, if you hire one person, you can consider him or her as two employees in terms of the workflow you can expect.
When all is said and done, perhaps the only real cost advantage that Shanghai has is the rent for a top-quality office. Bao noted that because of Hong Kong's relatively pricey office space, he has had to settle for a tight workplace.
George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. For more, visit scmp.com/mrshangkong