It was a filthy phrase and yet an all too often historically accurate one: ‘Failed In London, Try Hong Kong’. FILTH.
FILTH was the derogatory term given to any banker who did not quite make it in London and who then moved to Hong Kong to get a ‘bigger job’. Forget the 15% tax, or the 300+ days of sunshine - at the turn of the handover in 1997, there was no notion that moving to Asia could actually be someone’s preference. Post-crisis, all that changed, as the U.K. focused on bashing bankers and cabbies seemingly trash-talked anyone on their way to Canary Wharf: HK became an exciting escape.
However, now Hong Kong is losing its shine. Heading in to 2020, with the U.K. in a perpetual state of Brexit-exhaustion, and the Chinese Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong having its own identity crisis, should both regions be ignored entirely? Is New York now the only place to start your investment banking career?
The answer is nuanced, and it depends upon your priorities.
London will always look great on your resume
London is still the hardest place in the world to get a job in banking. In my experience, the ratio of applications to jobs available is around 150 per role at the best banks. If you can get a job in London, therefore, it will serve your CV well. Meanwhile, the visa situation in the U.S. can make it difficult for international students to even apply in New York, while there is a push to hire more domestic talent in HK.
Therefore, depending on your schooling-location and language skills, all three locations may not necessarily be open to you. However, if you're starting your career it's also worth nothing that HK is the only region where graduate intakes are still on the rise (or at least that they were until the recent demonstrations); Asia is becoming a bigger piece of the international wallet every year.
Hong Kong and New York if you're single
Financially, all three are expensive cities to live in, and because of lofty property prices, even the significant benefits of the HK tax regime probably only start to make a difference at around $200k+ of earnings, so the low tax environment matters less at the start of your career.
As a rule of thumb, New York and HK are definitely more fun if you are single, and London is generally better if you have a family. Manhattan is an amazing place to live for so many reasons (Central Park, Broadway, MSG etc.) but there's also something to be said for living in a city with a 10 mins cab ride to your office, the mountains and the seaside (which is what you get in HK). London has an awful lot of culture to offer, is a gateway to Europe, and has a restaurant/bar scene that's tangibly improved in the past decade.
But New York has the best jobs
As a function of time zone, London is likely to forever remain the center of Foreign Exchange markets. However, post-Brexit, bond trading will likely become more fragmented across Europe.
Equity derivative and convertible bond markets are generally more interesting in Asia, but if you want to work on the biggest transactions and IPOs in the world, then New York is the only place to be.
On the other hand, London will usually you greater international exposure as you will work on more cross-border deals, and this may facilitate international relocation in the future.
In HK, one of the biggest benefits I've seen is that talented juniors will almost certainly be given more responsibility earlier on in their careers, and this can speed up promotions. HK, however, is increasingly not even considered the best place to work in Asia. Singapore is now the place to be, is more livable every year and big banks continue to shift their headcount-bias to the city.
Ultimately, in my opinion, whichever location you choose, one of the best things you can do to progress your career is to plot a path that allows you to experience more than one of them, if not all three.
Bertrand Huang is a pseudonym
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