Investment Banking, Hong Kong Edition: The Best Place to Bank If You Know Mandarin?

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Investment Banking Hong Kong

If you take a second to look at the demographics for this site (see: right image), it’s no wonder that there’s so much interest in Hong Kong.

We’ve featured a few interviews with readers who worked in other areas of finance there, but nothing specifically on investment banking – until today.

Continuing our recent trend of non-anonymous interviews, today we’ll be speaking with Michael Tanenbaum, who worked at the World Bank, JP Morgan in Hong Kong, and then started a very interesting service that you should sign up for right away if you’re at a non-target school and you want to break into finance.

Here’s what’s in store:

  • Major differences in recruiting in Hong Kong and what types of candidates banks want to see there.
  • Why “networking doesn’t work in Asia” is mostly nonsense and an excuse used to justify inaction.
  • How deals, valuation, pay, and more differ in HK.
  • Why you’ll have a much easier time applying to banks and investment firms in the future if you come from a non-target school.

Breaking In… as a Foreigner?

Q: Well, I guess everyone already knows your background, but let’s play this game anyway… how did you get into banking?

A: Sure. I went to Johns Hopkins and studied international Relations and Economics there – it was a great school, but not a target for banks, so I was at a big disadvantage for finance recruiting.

I enrolled in their Master’s program right out of undergrad and went to the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), specializing in China studies and international finance.

About then, I realized I wanted to work in finance and set my sights on investment banking.

Q: Right, but there’s a big difference between getting interested during this Master’s program and taking a few courses on China and then actually winning a full-time offer in Hong Kong.

How did you do it?

A: Two factors helped me the most:

  1. Mandarin language skills – These are pretty much required if you want to do banking in Hong Kong. I had studied it extensively in school and was already “proficient” by the time I was applying, though obviously I was not a native speaker.
  2. Interesting work experience – I had been CTO of a financial literacy non-profit and got a lot of leadership experience like that; I also had experience running a software project at the World Bank. Most people didn’t have anything quite like that, so I stood out.

And then there was the usual extensive networking and reaching out to alumni and anyone else I could find.

Also, note that I completed an internship in HK before working there full-time – going there full-time without a banking internship first would be almost impossible, especially with the competition these days.

Q: Yeah, that seems to be the consensus.

What was your experience with the recruiting process in Hong Kong? Is it more similar to North America or Europe?

A: It was definitely less structured than what you see in those places – lots of big banks have very different structures in Asia, and they might organize groups around regional coverage rather than industry coverage, so “industry groups” may not exist in the same way.

I’ve seen people here go through 15+ interviews sometimes (one American friend who won an offer as a sales-trader in Tokyo had to do that), so the process can be more extended and random.

Resumes/CVs and interviews themselves are not that much different because they’ll ask the same types of questions, and they look for and value similar experience.

I think the alleged differences in interview mentality are overblown because most senior people in HK have had lots of exposure to Western countries anyway.

They will definitely test your language skills in interviews, so you can expect everything from interview questions in Mandarin to being asked to translate newspaper articles.

One common problem that I’ve seen among interviewees is that they’re too demure and humble in interviews.

They don’t really know how to talk themselves up and describe their strengths and accomplishments, which (not to be racist) is definitely a cultural thing.

Another difference is that you cannot get a job in Asia without being in Asia – so if you have your heart set on Hong Kong, find a way to make the trip happen. Use Airbnb, stay with a friend, live in a hostel, and network your butt off to make it happen.

If you say, “But it takes too much time / money!” that really just means “I’m not committed enough to find the job I really want.”

Since I was at a non-target school, networking was essential for me and I met the guy who would ultimately become my boss on a career trek that my school organized – we went out and visited Hong Kong and I stayed in touch with everyone I met there.

Q: Right, so it sounds like recruiting is more random and definitely requires in-person visits, but other than that the application process is similar.

What types of candidates are banks looking for there?

A: Most of the people in my analyst class were from US schools, and most of them were originally from mainland China or Hong Kong (or were ABCs) and had studied at top schools in the US.

Most front office jobs were similar: it was mostly people originally from China or HK who had attended the top schools in the US, UK, or Australia.

So yes, as one of the few non-Asians in my class I was definitely the exception!

Q: Yeah, I can see that. I want to circle back to one of the points you mentioned earlier, about networking in HK and how people say “it doesn’t work” to justify inaction.

Why is it effective despite what people often claim?

A: Yeah, I see this one a lot and always laugh when someone complains about it.

Reality check: Hong Kong is super-international and you actually stand a better chance networking with people there than in New York or London.

HK really only has 2 industries: trading (import/export) and finance.

And all the bankers and finance people hang out in the same places – even MDs and more senior people will be there.

So you can’t be afraid of going out and contacting people randomly.

They’re not stupid – an MD knows that a student calling him is looking for work, and some MDs will brush it off, some will be annoying or disparage you, and some will help you.

But you have to take it in stride and keep going until you find helpful contacts.

Now, in mainland China networking is a different beast and it mostly takes place over lots of binge drinking. And there are all sorts of other differences such as going through the right channels, not contacting more senior people at first, etc.

But in Hong Kong networking is even easier than it is in other financial centers, in my experience.

Q: Great. So before we move on, any final thoughts on recruiting?

A: The only point I’ll add is that you may want to have 2 different versions of your resume prepared, because at some banks 2-page resumes might be acceptable (banks based in Europe) while some banks (anything US-based) will prefer your traditional 1-page format.

You can use that page to describe your work experience, academic accomplishments, and anything else that makes you look better and confirms your interest in the region.

Banking in Hong Kong

Q: Yeah, good to point that out. I still think it’s better to stick to 1-page if you’re only using one version but sometimes the extra information can help.

What about the investment banking industry in Hong Kong overall? What do you see in terms of deals and industries?

A: Sure. Basically, Hong Kong is the main hub for mainland China.

Private banking relationships have been all the rage here because there are tons of newly wealthy people in the region who are looking to put their funds to use.

So lots of banks here stick it out and attempt to win private banking clients in hopes of cornering the ultra-wealthy market. As you’ve mentioned before, there’s also a lot of overlap between private banking and investment banking here.

The top 3 industries for deals:

  1. Natural Resources
  2. Real Estate and Construction / Infrastructure
  3. Diversified Consumer Products

Banking has been dominated by IPOs in the past because of the huge number of companies in mainland China going public, and M&A and debt deals tend to be less common. But eventually that will change and groups like DCM will mature.

The overall process for equity, debt, and M&A deals is not that much different but due diligence is huge and much more important than in the US and Europe.

Even if a company lists a number in its official filings, has the CFO sign off on it, and has accountants/auditors also verify it, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

You really have to double-check everything and assume that there will be at least a few shady happenings with most companies.

Finally, keep in mind that mainland China is significantly different – there, the capital markets are still immature and plain vanilla loans tend to dominate.

There is an IPO market but it’s nothing like what you see in developed countries. And there isn’t much activity in derivatives or DCM.

Q: Yeah, that theme of “double-check everything” seems to always come up in emerging markets.

What about an average day in the life of a banker there? Are the hours actually much longer?

A: Yeah, I think so. Even the average office worker here tends to have longer hours than what you see in the US and Europe, so investment banking is even longer.

I think 120 hours per week is an exaggeration but I wouldn’t be surprised if the overall average is slightly here (of course, who doesn’t think they have the longest hours?).

It can also feel like a bubble at times because it’s a small place and you tend to go to the same spots over and over again – but then, you’ll end up going to different countries working on deals and if you somehow manage to get free time you can easily go off somewhere else for the weekend.

The perks are pretty similar overall, and the main benefit over working in the US is that you’ll get to visit lots of countries in the region (not just mainland China) for travel – banks do cover other places from Hong Kong as well.

Q: So what are some of the differences in those regions?

A: I’ve worked on deals in a few markets here – mainland China, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, etc.

You might think that different accounting standards are a big issue, but that’s actually the smallest problem.

As an example, Indonesia has a very poor regulatory system and its largest businesses are dominated by a handful of powerful “families” with almost no corporate governance.

Then there’s huge FX risk, political and reputational risk, and more – lots of questions over labor standards, permits, companies falling out of favor with the government, and so on.

So you have to take into account all of that when analyzing companies in the region.

Then in a market like Japan, you have a series of other problems (massive debt, aging population, insolvent pension system, etc.) but you don’t have to worry about the yen disappearing overnight or the government being toppled by guerilla fighters.

Q: So how do you factor all of that into models and into valuations?

A: The same basic frameworks (comps, DCF) still apply but you have to assume much higher discount rates due to political risk.

And you have to assess the risk of a company failing, and whether or not the government will come along and bail it out.

Q: Sounds very similar to what you see in Latin America.

What about compensation in Hong Kong?

A: Well, you already know that the tax rates are much lower than in Western countries, though you don’t save quite as much as a US citizen since you’re still taxed on worldwide income.

Other than that, salaries and bonuses are relatively standardized at the junior levels so those aren’t much different from other regions.

I did not receive a housing stipend and didn’t get free round trips back home or anything – I’ve seen some people mention that, but in my experience they didn’t give any of that to junior bankers.

Senior bankers might get some of that, especially if they’re not from Hong Kong originally and are being asked to move there to start a new office or a new group for the firm.

Q: Ok, thanks for clearing that one up. What about exit opportunities? It seems like people work in Hong Kong and then move on or move out of the region very quickly.

A: Yeah, it is a more transient community here because people do leave and a lot of the people working here aren’t from the region originally.

The 2 most common paths to moving elsewhere:

  1. Do an internal transfer back home or to another region but stay at the same bank.
  2. Keep in touch and network when you’re back home or in other places and meet your counterparts in other regions and transfer like that.

Some people do move to the buy-side at firms here so that’s definitely possible, but I think more people actually transfer to other regions, with NYC and London at the top of the list.

One difference in Asia is that the opportunities can be greater for expats here – you stand out more if you’re not from the region, so sometimes firms are more willing to meet with you and hear you out than they would be in the US.

But it depends on the market and the country you’re in, and in some places the opposite is actually true.

ConnectCubed

Q: After leaving JPM you took a bit of a different path than most people – can you tell us about that?

A: Sure. I decided to leave and start ConnectCubed.

The idea is simple: finance firms are always looking to hire people, and we want to make the recruiting process more transparent and accessible.

While huge banks always use on-campus recruiting out of necessity, it costs a lot of money and time to sift through applicants and it also prevents smaller places from taking advantage of it.

At the same time, students from non-target schools have almost no access to these recruiting channels.

So we want to provide a filtering mechanism where the best students from anywhere can apply directly to firms – it removes a lot of the hassle of cold-calling and makes it easier for firms themselves to find the best people, even if they don’t look as good on paper.

Q: The benefit to applicants is obvious, but what do finance firms really get out of it? Don’t they already have too many people applying to them?

A: Global banks have a flood of applicants, which is why they need a better way to sort for the best and brightest.

And then smaller firms have serious trouble finding the right people because headhunters are expensive and it’s difficult to sort through applications and qualify people.

So it lets them find new employees with low costs and with the exact skills they need.

These firms tend to have very short hiring cycles and needed people yesterday – so using our service, they can find candidates with the exact characteristics they need.

You can click here to sign up yourself and see how the service works.

Q: Awesome! Sounds like a great idea. Good luck, and I’m sure many readers will find this interesting.

A: Yeah, thanks again and I enjoyed the chat.

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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52 Comments to “Investment Banking, Hong Kong Edition: The Best Place to Bank If You Know Mandarin?”

Comments

  1. François le Français says

    Thanks for this interview!

    My question is quite general: how Singapore compare to Hong Kong regarding all the topics discussed in this interview?

    Regarding IBD, I’ve heard that SG in not a major hub? Is it true?

    Mandarin appears to be essential to break into IBD in HK, but is it essential as well for SG? I’ve heard that you can be fine with only English and Bahasa Indonesian would be the most useful language to know in addition. True?

    Thanks!

    • says

      Thanks!

      Singapore is a hub for Southeast Asia, so there’s less of a focus on mainland China. It is not as major a hub as HK is. The standard business language in Southeast Asia is English, so Mandarin is not required for Singapore, though it may help you a bit. And yes, Indonesian would also be helpful.

      The industries are also a little different and you see more Shipping / Transportation there. Overall, if you’re interested in banking in Asia and don’t know Mandarin, Singapore is probably your best choice.

      • Priscilla says

        Hi Brian,

        Thank you for the interview! It’s really helpful. I’m Indonesian and have been thinking to go back to Asia (HK, Singapore, or mainland China). However, since I’m not fluent in Mandarin, Singapore is probably better for me. If you get a chance, would you please cover about IB in Singapore? Coverage about mainland China would also be great. Thank you so much!

  2. Mark says

    The bank I’m starting at in a few weeks said that in my 3rd Analyst year (should I stay on) I could work in a different office if I wanted to. My top choice would be HK, but I don’t speak a single word of Mandarin. Do you think I still have a shot as a transfer?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      If you don’t speak Mandarin, it can be challenging to transfer to Asia especially in groups which deal with Chinese clients. However, there are certain product groups (i.e. CBs) and industry groups (i.e. cross-border M&A) which don’t necessarily require local language skills. Its still easier to move to HK as an internal transfer though.

  3. Alan says

    Thanks for the interesting interview! I’ve been waiting for a HK/Asia article for a while.

    From what I know, coming from a West Coast target school, I’ve seen students here get into HK or Mainland BBs through connections (as sophomores, or juniors). What they do, and how they perform during their internship is something I don’t know about. I was wondering if anyone had seen any of this in their SA classes..

    And also, I was wondering if there were any good Mandarin training materials that you would suggest? I speak Cantonese (native) and Mandarin, but honestly I don’t know how to a whole DCF in Mandarin. My parents probably don’t know…

    Thanks!

    • says

      Thanks! Yes, sometimes summer interns get in via connections because many families are private wealth clients (or otherwise important to the bank) and it is more common in HK than in other regions.

      Mandarin training materials: I have had the most luck learning languages with private tutors (expensive in the US, but really cheap in Asia). If you already know Cantonese, http://chinesepod.com could be good because you can listen to conversations and match up what you already know since the grammar is similar.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Yes, some interns break in via connections and it does occur more so in Asia than other regions as Brian has stated because deals in Asia are very “relationship-driven”. Most of these interns whose families are HNW clients usually study abroad so what you mentioned is pretty common

      I don’t know of any good Mandarin training materials off the top of my head. In most cases, as long as you can speak & write fluent Mandarin (you come across as a fluent Mandarin speaker to native speakers), can attend business meetings and translate pitches, your language skills should be pass the language requirement in interviews. You can always hire a tutor/take business Mandarin classes when you start working in HK. There are some language schools which cater to IBs in HK and specifically teach students IB lingo in Mandarin

  4. Simon says

    Hi,

    Thanks for the interview, it really helps !

    What about the future of DCM in Asia, as said in the article, in HK there is not a lot of activity, what about Singapore ?

    • says

      I don’t think there’s much more activity there, though someone else may be able to tell you more. Activity will definitely increase going forward as companies get more mature.

      • Simon says

        Thanks for your reply. Hope to see an insight of finance in singapore soon ;)
        Keep on doing, this website is really full of interesting insights/interviews.

        • Ryan says

          Actually the Asian DCM market was very active this year as funding cost in the traditional bank market has increased. Most of the major HK companies (the real estate developers..) already did multiple bond issuance.

  5. Paul says

    Thanks for the information! Do you see, on a relative basis, that candidates accepted into the US (e.g. NYC) offices are more competitive in background than those of the HK offices?

  6. Y.Hoon says

    Michael draws a pretty barren picture IMO for non-Chinese speakers, which is not always true. Although I was trying to learn, I spoke very little Cantonese and no Manadarin. Michael wrote the Chinese language is a prerequisite to getting investment banking jobs in HK but it is not true. But I do very much agree on his point on networking. I cannot emphasize how helpful it is. I graduated from a small university in Korea and started my career 3 years ago in a bulge bracket ib in HK. I had no connection, just some friends who visited our school during their exchange student programs. During Sophomore and Junior year I interned at companies like Samsung, LG but didn’t really think it was for me. The following year I saved up some money, grabbed my suitcase and just left to HK. I stayed a couple weeks at my friends and later at cheap motels while trying to network with local bankers. I tried everything I could think of from online networking services (the likes of Linkedin), local news ads (they had this little section in the paper for senior execs’ promotion, etc). I even borrowed student IDs from my friends who went to local schools in HK to go through their career servics. With a hit rate of around 20%, I managed to meet up with 15~16 bankers both in junior and senior positions. I asked them what their work and life was like, told how interested I was gave little hint or two that I know how to model (thanks to BIWS) It was July-August so not recruiting season but I gave them my resume anyway. Came October/November, I flew to HK again, called them up again and told that I’d like to know if there is an opening. I ended up getting invited to 5 1st round interviews and got final offers from 2 without ever being asked to speak any Mandarin/Cantonese. (Though I did get to work a lot on deals involving Korean seller/buyers throughout my time there) I just cannot emphasize enough how crucial networking is.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Thanks for contributing! Great story! I agree that persistence, belief in yourself, and networking pay off. You really wanted a job in banking and went for it (mentally and physically), and didn’t let anyone/any excuses stop you. Inspirational story!

    • says

      Thanks for adding that – great story. And I agree, there are bankers who get into HK without knowing Mandarin but it’s not common. A few friends have done it, but usually you need another language skill to make up for it. In your case, I think being a Korean speaker was an advantage since the bank had the need.

    • Adam says

      Nice story. Just curious when this was. Also curious if you have moved on; what you wrote implies that you have.

  7. HK Banker says

    yes agreed with the article (I have been in i-banking in HK for over 4 yrs) – speaking Mandarin is not a pre-requesite everywhere given a lot of banks cover the entire Asia-Pac from HK (including Australia and South East Asia) but it’s a huge plus if your bank is looking at greater China, and most do!

  8. aaron says

    Hey great article!

    Just want to confirm (from prior articles on this site) that speaking Mandarin is not a prerequisite to do Trading (not Sales) within Hong Kong … is this correct?

    Quick question: If you were to do trading at a BBB, would you be allowed to work a little later and trade during the London trading hours?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Speaking Mandarin is not a prerequisite in trading roles, though some roles do require candidates to speak some level of Mandarin

      You mean trade for the firm or for yourself? There are restrictions if you want to trade for yourself.

      • aaron says

        What if you were to take a position on a client trade during the normal HK trading hours, leave it unhedged or paritally hedged and decide to hold that position past 5PM HK local time. You might do this because you believed the markets would go in your favor within the next, say, 5 hours or so. Would this be allowed?

        I think it might depend upon the Bank you work for, proven track record, seniority, etc…?

        Thanks,

  9. Andrew says

    Great article!
    And what about IB\trading in Russia and Switzerland. Are there any reviews to show up soon?

    Thanks, Brian

  10. James says

    Great article, thanks Brian!

    I recently met an executive director based in HK at a BB bank, how can I follow up with him?

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Send him an email to follow up with him! Express your gratitude. Include an item of interest from your meeting or conversation. Remind him of what you might be able to do for him, not merely what he can do for you. Be brief and succinct. Send the email as soon as possible after the meeting.

  11. Jack says

    Thanks for the interview!

    I have the background to be potentially competitive for both Hong Kong and NYC recruiting. Given that landing an offer is never guaranteed, I would like to spread my net and recruit for both regions. Would I seem uncommitted if I applied to both HK and NYC?

    • Adam says

      If the companies you apply to realize that you are applying to both then yes, you might seem uncommitted. Many firms say that you are only allowed to apply to one region, but the thing is that at most places HR in each region is a completely separate team and there is not much (if any) coordination across regions.

      Some firms make you create username and build a profile online – these places would know if you tried to apply to 2 regions. Others only require you to send over documents, and perhaps answer questions online, to the HR team. These you can apply to multiple regions and HR would be very unlikely to ever put 2&2 together.

    • M&I - Nicole says

      You can apply to both cities. You might want to tailor the answer to the question which city you want to work in depending on the location of the role you will be interviewing for

  12. Jason says

    Hi, may I know what are the chances that a foreign MBA graduate (from local business school,say HKUST) with 3 years of engineering background breaking into the IB in Hong Kong?

  13. Josh says

    Hi,

    I’m interning at an asset management company in Beijing right now. I’m currently a rising junior, so I think it wouldn’t hurt to network with some investment banks here. I’m on Finance St., so I’m within walking distance from most of the BB’s in Beijing. How would I approach networking here?

  14. Jonathan says

    Hi,

    I am interested in purchasing the Networking Toolkit. I wonder if it covers firms in Hong Kong in its list?

    Also, I am now studying in the States and I am only able to go to Hong Kong in the summer. Would people that I set up informational interviews with back in summer still remember me when it comes to the application and interview period later?

    • says

      There are firms in HK and Asia in the Toolkit, yes.

      Yes, people you speak with in the summer will still remember you, but you need to stay in touch with them and follow-up as soon as you arrive back – if you go too long without contacting them you can lose the opportunity.

  15. Jay says

    How easy is it to move from Hong Kong to North America, especially if the role is macro research/strategist related? Thanks

    • M&I - Nicole says

      It would be easiest if you transfer internally. And to do so successfully, this depends on how global your team is, your network & your skills. Many factors at play. It would help if you have a strong network in North America and have met the people in the team there. Also depends on the structure of the teams – if your team in North America need someone who has experience working in emerging markets, this would be in your favor

  16. Adrien says

    Hi Brian !

    I would like to know more about how to break into Finance in Asia as a foreigner (i.e not Asian, French in my case).
    Is it worth applying for a Summer Internship there or would it be easier to get one in EMEA and then move to Asia ?
    Note that I am not fluent in Mandarin, but I am targeting Singapore (Usualy easier than HK without being fluent, right?)

    Cheers

    • M&I - Nicole says

      It would be helpful if you have some Asian experience. Otherwise, it can be challenging to break in. If you don’t speak the language, Singapore may be an easier option. I think it may be easier for you to get one in EMEA and then transfer. Perhaps its a good idea for you to set up informational interviews where you are now and arrange a trip down to Singapore to network.

  17. JasonK says

    Hi M&I! First time posting here, but I would just like to point out how incredibly informative this site is. I hope you can spend 5 minutes answering some concerns I have..

    First, some background. I’m currently a sophomore at a target school (HYP) in the US, and I’m also originally from APAC (not HK or SG though). I’m hoping to break into HK or SG for a BB SA (S&T or Capital Markets) position next summer, however, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to find alumni who actually works at BB firms in those 2 locations (I tried alumni connections website as well as LinkedIn). Most of my peers are clustered around NYC and they don’t really know anyone working in BBs out of America. What would you recommend me do for networking purposes?

    I’m also going to work for a BB firm in their ER department this summer, so hopefully I will be able to leverage that to connect with some of the bankers in HK or SG (firstly through email to schedule a coffee chat or something like that, and then I’ll personally fly over to those places to meet up with them).

    • M&I - Nicole says

      Glad to hear you find our site informative! I’d use the opportunity this summer to connect with bankers in HK/SG. Yes set up chats first then fly down. I’d also recommend you to start cold emailing/messaging people via email or LinkedIn to cast your net wide.

  18. Joe Guo says

    Hi,
    Thank you so much for sharing those great insights! It helps me a lot in understanding the investment banking opportunity in HK! I have a few questions that need your help.
    I just finished my Master degree in engineering from a top 10 university in US and I’m planning to pursue another degree in finance to prepare my transformation into investment banking which I have been interested in for a long time. Although I am an engineering guy from looking into my undergraduate and graduate education, I don’t want to do the technology stuff in the investment bank and that’s the reason I’m considering about a degree in finance. In order to successfully get into the industry, I want to apply for a target school in US and could you tell me which schools are targeted according to your rich experience in HK? What else do I need considering my background in engineering? By the way, do you know someone who has similar experience–transforming from engineering to investment banking and what did they do?
    Thanks!

  19. Jill says

    Hi Brian, thanks for sharing! Can you elaborate more about M&A in Hong Kong? Is there an active market for it at present? What about in the near future, say, 5 years time?

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