Hong Kong headhunters say they are getting more and more resumes from Europe and the US. The bad news is that there are very few openings for bankers who have no prior experience in Asia. This does not mean there are no opportunities in the region. On the contrary, regional banks and corporations are taking advantage of the downturn to reverse the brain drain and scoop up talent that they would have found difficult to attract during the good times. There are still banking jobs in Asia, but primarily for its native talent that are willing to come home.
Praveen Malhotra, the founder of Positive Moves, an India-based headhunting firm, says that he has received opportunistic mandates from two domestic banks: "Find the best Indian talent from across the world, and bring them to me."
These are local banks that, unlike their larger international competitors, make most of their revenue by arranging small-ticket deals for a long list of local corporate clients. The management has the connections - what they want to add is technical expertise, so they are tapping the Indian diaspora to help them adopt cutting-edge know-how from the world's financial centres.
"These banks have never managed to attract high-quality talent before and they think that this could be the only opportunity they could have to get it," says Malhotra. So keen are these banks to get good people, they are not even hiring against specific roles.
The Indian banks are realistic when it comes to pay and retention, says Malhotra, since the salaries will not match what an international bank pays. The challenge for these banks is to offer something that will make the new hires want to stay when the next bull market charges in. Some ownership in the company might work; another selling point is to remind people that they are giving up the unpredictability of the global markets and returning to something more stable.
China too has gone on the hunt for people. As part of a recruitment drive, it sent out a government delegation in December to the US and the UK to find prospective candidates for around 175 jobs in dozens of local financial companies, with an emphasis on private wealth and risk management. With only Chinese language adverts, the target audience was clearly potential returnees.
While employers in the mainland are on the look-out for foreign expertise, Chinese bankers with overseas experience should not think that they can fly to China and walk into a job. "There are still pockets of demand," says Alistair Ramsbottom, Shanghai-based headhunter at Consult Group, "but a lot of candidates underestimate how much competition there is here." And, for anyone used to working at an international bank, the mainland salaries may be lower than expected - despite a lower cost of living in Shanghai than, say, London, local pay would make it difficult to maintain the standard of living they have grown accustomed to in the West.
And going home is not always easy, especially from an open, developed market to a closed market that is still in its infancy. One Chinese banker who lost his job in London at the end of last year, returned to his native Shanghai to find that his experience in equity derivatives was of little value in a market where derivatives are yet to be fully introduced. "What am I supposed to do?" he asks. "I could try equity sales, but I don't have the local contacts. Or maybe equity research in a fund." He acknowledges that either option would be a step backwards that fails to fully take advantage of his past experience.
This article is a shortened version of FinanceAsia's March cover story "Out of Pocket", which takes an in-depth look at employment and compensation trends across the banking industry.