Constantly Learning: Banking/Banking in Asia

Perhaps the title of this post will put you to sleep, but with Hong Kong being as finance-centered as it is, you simply can’t help but be steeped in the stuff. I recall noticing early on that the free newspapers they hand out at the subway had far more pages in the finance/business sections than the AM or Metro ever did back in NY (and only just one page is devoted to Hollywood here in HK). Just about every ex-pat I know here works in finance in some shape or form (straight-up bankers and traders, accountants for financial companies or accounting firms focused on financial clients, IT, HR — all for finance-focused companies, and if you’re a lawyer, you do something in corporate finance). Every now and then you may meet someone who works outside of the confines of “finance,” which, obviously, in itself can be a fairly broad term, but the point is, you can’t seem to avoid it here in HK.

And so, when it came to looking for a full-time job, it was a no-brainer to look towards the finance industry as a source. Unfortunately, while I’ve worked for some of the world’s biggest hedge funds, banks, accounting firms, and such, my experience is not exactly financial, and as a litigator, it is going to take some convincing. And so it was time to hit the books – quite literally too.

I’ve been doing as much learning as I can. I’ve sought out as many informational interviews with alumni or other contacts, even folks I’ve met at social events, to learn more about this murky giant called “finance.” I’ve bought a few books on the industry to familiarize myself more with CDS’s, CDO’s, bonds, puts, and other such jargon, trying my best to watch Bloomberg and take a peek at the FT to keep up with as much financial news as possible. Just learning, learning, learning. It seems there is always more to learn, and in my usual fashion, I get upset with myself when I don’t feel like I’m doing enough. (Perhaps I’m just too Asian in that sense.)

The other night I attended a dinner organized by my alumni association where Stephen Green, a chairman of HSBC, was going to speak about Banking in Asia in the 21st Century. What a grand topic. In 20 minutes or so, he gave us a rundown of the past, the present, and the future of banking in Asia. Strangely, I found it quite fascinating.

We all wonder what might be our “calling” in life, and I’m not saying I have found one yet, but rather, that I lack one. Yes, I know I’m working on learning Mandarin (which I’ve actually upped quite a bit by engaging with language exchange partners from the Mainland — more on that another time), but having no “job,” I don’t quite have that sense of being productive with a day-to-day preoccupation that somehow pays the bills while contributing to the world/world economy.

Even though many of us don’t think our jobs mean much to the world, we are all in an interconnected community, and yes, every little thing does count. Right now, I’m not really engaged with it, and am just involved with myself really — so yes, I am looking for a job to also reconnect with the world.

Anyway, back to banking and Mr. Green’s interesting talk. Mr. Green recently wrote a book on ethical banking, Good Value: Reflections on Money, Morality, and an Uncertain World. The title basically says it all, and it’s a timely book in these mad times, where greed somehow blinded everyone — the bankers who devised the CDOs, the predatorial mortgage guys, the construction companies who built more homes than could be sold, the homeowners, the regulators, the rating companies — seemingly everyone!  And while I haven’t read the book yet, it did remind me of Prof. Derrick Bells’ Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, in which Prof. Bell addresses a similar theme in the world of law.

Lawyers have always gotten an insanely bad rep for what they do.  Even though there are obviously several selfless ones (all the non-profit organizations run by lawyers, legal aids out there, etc. etc.), somehow people like to focus on the so-called bad ones or obsess over how much lawyers charge for their services.  What I find most annoying is how people will peg lawyers as being “evil” for representing anyone charged with a crime.  First off, our country practices innocence until proven guilty and second, it guarantees (at least in theory) everyone the right to his day in court with representation.  I say the lawyer who does represent a murderer or rapist is even more noble, because it sure ain’t easy advocating on behalf of someone vile and loathsome in the name of justice for all.  However, such representation is absolutely vital for the continuation of a just society.

But these days, it seems my profession may now have taken a step down on the ladder of hate, and bankers have overtaken lawyers in that department (hooray… sort of).  Yet bankers equally go as unsung heroes too.  Wall Street really is just as important as Main Street, and the two are clearly more interconnected than ever.  History has neglected to highlight the importance of great financiers of the past, who helped to make several businesses, large and small, possible.  Banks have been the backbone of the American dream, and without them, and the tireless efforts of many bankers, we forget where we would be.  And now, as Mr. Green reminds us in his latest book, we need to be mindful of upholding those practices at the highest level.

I suppose I digress at many points in this post, but it is just so hard to summarize all the information and impressions I’ve been digesting over the past several weeks on banking and finance. Basically, as I look towards this new industry as a source of productivity for myself, I see so much possibility.

I see an area that is in great need of revitalization and reform (which no doubt is in the forefront of many legal/compliance officers’ minds).  I also see an opportunity to be part of something special and important – especially here in Asia.  Mr. Green explained how Asia had always been ultra-conservative with spending, representing the world’s savers rather the consumers; and the West has traditionally been the opposite – spending more than they actually saved.  And with that, Asia was far less scathed with the economic crisis of late 2008-2009, bouncing back far more easily.  Plus, Asia, which by no means is taking over the place of New York or London as a financial center, is now finally coming into its own, and will have a say in this world.

To me that is all so exciting, and here in Hong Kong – hell yeah I want to be a part of it!



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