Nottle's no-nonsense leadership legacy
ROBERT Nottle's time in the Hong Kong hall of fame may well be short compared to the more flamboyant figures that have graced the local financial establishment, but his legacy could well be far more significant.
Along with the other team of experienced regulators that arrived in 1989, he was a hired gun brought in to clean up the gaping holes in Hong Kong's regulatory landscape. Serving under Robert Owen as the first chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), he took on the top job in early 1992.
His decision not to seek another term at the end of this year will most likely result in a local person taking it over.
There is no doubt his contribution to market regulation has made Hong Kong a better place to trade in.
The stock exchange of five years ago was characterised by amateurism and market manipulation.
It fell to the SFC, formed in the wake of the Ian Hay Davidson report following the 1987 crash, to modernise and clean up the market.
A publicity-shy man, Mr Nottle took over the reins at a time when the regulatory framework was largely established. New rules on listing, offers and a takeover code were in place and the savage battle with small brokers on the Stock Exchange Council, who fought a rearguard action to protect their voting rights, was won.
As a gradualist, Mr Nottle shied away from any idea of a ''big bang'' in introducing new products and trading systems in favour of a phased introduction.
Widely respected for this approach, he managed to forge consensus and his relationship with the stock exchange's Charles Lee was said to be a major factor in the getting the H-share listings up and running.
As the market's watchdog, implementing the new rules became Mr Nottle's focus.
The crackdown on insider dealing may only have resulted in two convictions to date but Mr Nottle has promised more are under investigation.
While the practice was accepted as endemic and widespread, the SFC had been forced to operate a ''balanced portfolio'' in allocating its time and manpower, said Mr Nottle.
Cracking down on unlicensed brokers and unauthorised funds such as the recent T. S. Wong case has formed a large part of the commission's remit while Mr Nottle has been behind the drive to introduce systems to enhance market efficiency.
The central clearing and automatic matching systems were both implemented during his period and enabled the huge increase in exchange-traded business last year.
If the Hong Kong market is now generally well regarded by foreign investors, it is largely due to the results of the SFC and Mr Nottle's measured programme of change.
The principal challenge during his final months could well be getting a firm regulatory grip on the derivatives markets, which will greatly expand when the stock options market is introduced.
Much of this activity has so far been booked offshore and therefore out of the SFC's control. However with short selling likely to grow rapidly once the necessary amendment to the stamp duty ordinance is passed, its role will be vital in ensuring stock is properly borrowed to cover short positions.
If there is any criticism of Mr Nottle, one highly placed source said it was his tendency to be ''overly sensitive to the apparent uniqueness of the Hong Kong market''.
Shying away from the regional trend to increase capital requirements for stockbrokers, Mr Nottle allowed their minimum capitalisation to be reduced from $1 million to $500,000, thereby postponing the day when consolidation in the industry occurs.
However, for this potentially most controversial of positions as head of the SFC, Mr Nottle's achievement will be engineering a transformation of the old clubby world of finance in Hong Kong while also maintaining a consensus among all parties.