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Moving Forward

International knowledge and standards keys for HK to move forward, HSBC head says

Globalisation has remained an important theme for HSBC since the bank’s founding

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2016, 10:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2016, 10:55pm

For HSBC’s Peter Wong Tung-shun, the way for Hong Kong’s young to prepare themselves for a key role in maintaining the city’s place as a link between the mainland and the world could be as simple as turning a page.

“Young people should read more international newspapers to have a strong understanding of international affairs and developments,” Wong, HSBC’s head of Asia Pacific, told the South China Morning Post.

“They should read the international newspapers to understand what is happening around the world and assess what are the implications of international affairs,” he said.

Only when they can say what the implications are of a drop of oil price for various countries and industry sectors can they help advise Chinese firms looking to invest overseas and to develop yuan usage globally.

The globalisation of Chinese firms and the yuan are two key themes for Hong Kong in coming years, with the city ideally placed to capture a big share of the opportunities to be created.

But, Wong said, as well as young people taking up the challenge, the city’s government must work to make sure Hong Kong keeps abreast of the best international standards in banking and professional services including accountancy, legal and tourism.

“Hong Kong will not be successful if we are just another Chinese city among many. Hong Kong will only be successful if we can be the international financial centre for China,” he said.

Born in Hong Kong, Wong obtained a masters degree in computer science, marketing and finance in the US. This gave him a strong understanding of both Chinese and Western cultures and an appreciation of how technology can change the business world.

He started his banking career in 1980 at Citibank and was the first Chinese to become Hong Kong chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank in 2000.

Wong joined HSBC in 2005 as group general manager and was promoted to his current role in 2011. He said his understanding of China’s reform process and its growing economy was how he was able to get to the top job in an international bank like HSBC, where people who can bridge the cultures of China and the West are in great demand.

HSBC itself embarked on an aggressive global expansion after it took over British Midland Bank in 1992 and moved its headquarters to London.

It expanded into Europe, Latin America and later the US, but to a mixed reception from analysts. Asia however still accounts for 83.5 per cent of its pre-tax profit, and some analysts have questioned the need for global expansion given such a dominance in its home turf.

But HSBC maintains its belief in its global strategy, and decided earlier this year to keep its headquarters in London.

Wong believes being an international bank has allowed HSBC to capture opportunities as many Chinese firms in recent years began to expand overseas.

In one example, the bank acted as the lead adviser in China National Chemical Corp’s US$44 billion acquisition of Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta earlier this year.

“HSBC is the largest foreign bank in China and we have a big international network in Asia, Europe and the US. This has allowed us to connect mainland clients to the international world by lining up cross border deals,” he said.

For banking executives, this means having a broad view.

“In the past, the bank’s chief executive for a country needed only to make sure that business in that country was good. Now they need to work together. When a Chinese company wants to buy a Malaysian company, the bank’s China chief needs to talk to its Malaysian one to line up potential candidates. Likewise, when a US company wants to invest in China, the chief executives of the bank in both countries need to work together,” he said.

The challenges facing Hong Kong and HSBC are the same, Wong said: slowing growth in the mainland economy, the closure of many factories in the south of the country as exports fall, and the tough times for Hong Kong’s retailers and restaurants as the number of tourists declines.

Wong, however, believes the city and the bank, with its 151 years of history in Hong Kong, can cope with the challenges with the right strategies.

He suggested the Hong Kong government follow the example of Shenzhen and Qianhai, where tax and other incentives like free rental space can help a new generation of Hong Kong entrepreneurs set up new businesses and help boost the local economy.

He also wants the Hong Kong government to lobby the central government to allow more yuan products to be sold in the city, which together with the central government’s Belt and Road initiative will drive growth in financial services in Hong Kong.

For the bank itself, a strong emphasis on risk management and adapting its business model are key.

“The Guangdong economy has been evolving and restructuring for some time. Rising wages have led some firms to move operations into central or western provinces. Meanwhile, there are a large number of innovative and technology companies setting up in Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta area. These changes represent new growth opportunities for HSBC,” Wong said.

HSBC also plans to expand in Guangdong via digital banking in addition to opening branches.

“There are an estimated 250 million middle class people in China. This is expected to double to 500 million by 2030. These people will need personal banking services,” he said.

“Chinese customers have leapfrogged more traditional forms of banking services. They do not always need to go to a branch, they can just as easily use their mobile phones. We are seeing the same trend in Hong Kong amongst our younger customers. Digital banking will be the way forward for the next generation of banking customers.”