“I got to the top in Asian banking. But I wouldn’t enter the sector today”

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I made it to the upper ranks in the banking sector. Until last year (when I left to start my own gym in Singapore) I was the head of Citi’s Asia Pacific corporate bank, in charge of about 300 bankers across the region. But despite having had a long and enjoyable career, banking wouldn’t be my number one choice of job if I were graduating in Singapore or Hong Kong today.

I’m not the only person thinking along these lines either. I believe the prestige that banking has traditionally enjoyed in Asia is on the way down as more fresh grads and MBAs are looking to work for technology companies, fintech start-ups or private equity firms. If it doesn’t go well for them in these other industries, well, they can always go into banking later (especially if they’re from a top university), but banking may no longer be the default sector to start out in.

What would put me off banking if I were a grad in 2018? For starters, global banks are no longer doing large-scale hiring in Singapore or Hong Kong and the investment dollars going into recruitment and retention have ebbed. Compensation – even in investment banking – has also fallen, which is another reason why I would seriously consider other options like tech or PE.

More importantly, there’s the real perception among bankers that risk and compliance teams (not bankers) are effectively running banks today. The extent of regulatory reform since the financial crisis has been the most significant change I’ve seen over my entire 35-year career. This is largely a welcome development for the financial sector as a whole (and for consumers), but it has made it costlier to run a bank and more difficult for banks to make the same net incomes as they did in the past.

While I don’t blame the regulators for being hawkish, there’s no doubt that financial regulations have made front-office jobs less interesting and less fun. All the bankers I talk to these days bemoan how difficult it is to do their jobs. From simple account opening to lending standards and foreign exchange – everything has become (and is still getting) more challenging. Many bankers now spend much of their time making sure they don't inadvertently mistep on regulations. And for banks operating globally, this means multi-jurisdictional regulations – head-office as well as local rules. For better or for worse, that’s the way the industry has evolved.

On top of this, of course, the rise of fintech is also disrupting the way banks operate. This is good for customers – both people and companies – but again, it makes it harder for large banks to make money and stay relevant. Take China for example: if I am a Chinese consumer, I can run a lot of my life via Alibaba websites. I can buy all kinds of stuff on Taobao; pay my bills and move cash through Alipay Wallet; borrow money (if I'm an SME) from MyBank; and park my spare cash in MyBank investments. This is all under one roof – there's no need to use a traditional bank.

With artificial intelligence set to drive more banking processes in the future, the number of bankers that banks need to employ may also decrease. I can see AI driving analytics in predicting consumer behaviour, credit metrics and currency movements, so banking job descriptions must evolve to accommodate these irreversible trends.

In summary, the job market in banking is becoming more brutal, because the pie has shrunk (largely thanks to regulatory reform and technology) and job satisfaction and security are not what they used to be. If you’re a young banker today and want to stay in the sector, you need to carefully consider where your future employment prospects may lie. Where will your skills still be wanted?

Here in Asia, for example, the big Chinese banks are still growing (although they may currently not have the full spectrum of sophisticated products that global banks have). There are still truckloads of opportunities for Mandarin speaking bankers who understand how to operate in China.

Hong Kong bankers are best placed to take advantage of this growth, thanks to their city’s strong nexus to the mainland. But I think Singapore could potentially be a large talent base for Chinese banks in the near future. The big question, though, is whether bankers in Singapore will be adventurous enough to want to spend a lot of time in China (these roles will require either relocating there or doing frequent business trips). This is exactly the kind of question you need to start asking yourself as a banker (or as a grad who still wants to join the sector). Working in banking isn’t going to get any easier.

Agnes Liew work for Citi for 35 years, latterly as head of APAC corporate banking.

Image credit: z_wei, Getty

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