White Collar

Could 2018 see Hong Kong’s stock exchange get its first woman chief in 127 years?

If veteran regulator Laura Cha gets the top job, as widely expected, it would mark a major step forward in a city that still lags behind developed markets in the number of women in top company positions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 11:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 11:00am

As we enter 2018, we can look forward to a possible big breakthrough with the likely appointment of the first chairwoman for stock exchange operator Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing in the 127-year of history of the local market.

Laura Cha Shih May-lung, 68, a member of the Executive Council, the city’s cabinet, and chairwoman of the Financial Services Development Council, an advisory body promoting Hong Kong’s financial industry, is widely tipped to be the front runner for the next head of HKEX. HKEX is listed on its own exchange.

Almost all brokers and fund houses are betting that Cha will replace Chow Chung-kong, who will step down in April, making her the first woman to head the bourse since it began trading in 1891.

That would be good news in a city where only about 10 per cent of company directors are female, compared to European and US markets where on average between 17 per cent and 40 per cent of directors are women.

Cha is seen as a suitable candidate because of her long involvement with the local market. She was deputy chairwoman of market regulator the Securities and Futures Commission in the 1990s, when she helped set rules and regulations to bring H shares to Hong Kong from 1993.

Then she went north to be a vice-chairwoman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission from 2001 to 2004, before being appointed in 2006 as a director of HKEX for six years, the maximum allowed under current government regulations for appointments to public bodies.

She is also non-executive deputy chairwoman of HSBC, and a director of several leading companies in the region.

Securities commission backs introduction of dual-class shares on Hong Kong stock exchange

As chairwoman of the FSDC over the past three years, she has led the advisory body in several proposals to promote the Hong Kong market, including reform of the listing rules to allow companies with dual classes of shares to list on the main board, a move aimed at attracting more technology firms to list here.

That project is a major one for the HKEX, and has government backing, so Cha’s involvement in the process would help her candidacy for the top job, insiders said.

During Chow’s six-year chairmanship, the stock exchange achieved a number of milestones, including the Stock Connect scheme linking the Shanghai stock market with HKEX for cross-border trading, which began operations in 2014, and the Shenzhen leg that was added in 2016. The schemes have enhanced the local market’s position as a gateway for international investors entering mainland China markets, while mainland investors now represent 6 per cent of fund flows into the Hong Kong market.

Meanwhile, over at the SFC, chairman Carlson Tong Ka-shing will step down in October after completing his six years, but so far there is no front runner for his successor. This job may be harder to fill as the regulator is now handling a number of high-profile investigations, having stepped up its oversight, including the Convoy Global Holdings saga which is making headlines almost every day. Watch this space.

Finally, as today is the first day of 2018, may I wish all readers a happy and prosperous year ahead.