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Hong Kong, New York or London? The best place for a banking career

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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AUTHORBertrand Huang Insider Comment
  • pb
    21 November 2019

    Too many firms have selfish, shortsighted senior managers who live in suburbs outside of London or New York and move many jobs to the expensive areas where they live, making their firms unattractive to talent while scr-wing be over many of their existing staff. UBS tried this years ago. Companies that do that exit the viable job market and are no longer part of this question.

  • L3
    21 November 2019

    "cabbies seemingly trash-talked anyone on their way to Canary Wharf:"
    The admirable London cabbies did not trash-talk anyone. Total fiction. You are lucky to be using a pseudonym with libel like that. Consider the witness protection program for a more secure future.

  • Di
    20 November 2019

    Depends on whether or not you want to get fast promotion.
    If promotion is very important to you,
    HQ Country >> Hong Kong > New York > London
    To get promote, you need to GROW business
    It is easier to do that in HQ (more resources) and Hong Kong (easier to grow)

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