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Asia's investment banks launch round of job cuts

Reuters / Hong Kong 25 Jun 12 | 08:02 AM

Investment banks and brokerages across Asia have launched a sweeping round of job cuts as Europe's debt crisis and China's economic slowdown bite into the region's financial activity.

Speaking to bankers and other industry sources, Reuters was able to confirm at least 50 people were let go in the past three weeks, a cull that includes senior expatriates as well as junior bankers. The cuts mainly target the equities business, with more layoffs expected in coming weeks.

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CLSA , Deutsche Bank , Goldman Sachs , and UBS were among the banks and brokerages that cut jobs, the sources said.

"In response to a market environment far worse than anticipated and considerable over-capacity in the industry, we have made the difficult decision to make some positions redundant," said Anna Tehan, a spokeswoman for CLSA.

CLSA, an Asia focused brokerage, has prided itself over the years in keeping cuts low, with employees previously taking voluntary pay cuts to stay on board.

"A very small percentage of our workforce is affected, from across all areas of the business," Tehan said, adding that the firm would not comment on specific reduction numbers.

Two sources at CLSA said tens of jobs were cut across the region in the last two weeks, with one saying specifically they included 25 staff in Hong Kong, and 10 in India across sales, core research and the new India Reality Research division.

"Banks have cut 5-7% of staff, which is unusual as this cut usually happens in November and December," David Azar, managing director, equities at recruitment firm Pemberton Stewart, wrote in an e-mail, describing the round of layoffs.

"We see more cuts in the next few months."

Asia, where banks staffed heavily in the last few years to capture the growth of developing economies, saw cutbacks at the end of last year as deal and trading activity slowed in the wake of early signs of Europe's woes.

But the latest round of layoffs comes as hopes for a strong first half faded quickly after the first quarter. China's slowdown in growth, after years of supporting the surge in Asia's financial activity, has hit particularly hard.

The Asia cuts also come at an unexpected time, when expatriate finance professionals are preparing to hunker down for the summer while their families head home for the holiday.

"I'm disappointed, but in some ways I'm glad I was cut early in this round, because everyone is looking over their shoulder," said Cassandra Lister, who was recently let go as a managing director at Societe Generale in Hong Kong. "They're looking around and wondering 'Am I next?' It's a horrible work environment."

Like all regions in the financial industry, Asia usually sees a year-end trimming of headcount. After the 2008 financial crisis, many banks cut from the bottom, firing junior staff to keep numbers low while the workload was light.

In the current wave, more senior and expatriate bankers are leaving, a trend that gained steam last year amid a sharp focus to retain roles that were either client-facing or revenue generating, preferably both.

MOSTLY IN EQUITIES

The emphasis on cuts in equities divisions is unusual for a market driven by stock sales and issuance, but reflects how weak Asian markets have been this year.

Equity market activity typically generates around three-quarters of annual revenues for an investment bank in Asia. Although debt issuance is robust in the region this year, equity capital markets are struggling - a fact keenly noted by bank headquarters in New York and London that have shelled out loads of money for Asia expansions in the hope the fee pool will grow.

"The Street has never had to come to grips with the cost base out here until now," said the top Asia executive at an investment bank, who did not want to be named. "The US office doesn't want to subsidise Asia anymore."

While pockets of Asia have seen bursts of financial market activity, such as Japan and Malaysia, China's slowdown has had far-reaching impact.

Equity capital market deals in Asia ex-Japan, including IPOs and follow-ons, are down 47.5% in 2012 through mid-June to $67.8 billion, according to Thomson Reuters data. In Hong Kong alone, IPOs have had their slowest start in about four years with deal volumes down 85 percent in the first five months of the year.

Some of the layoffs were at Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong, which trimmed numbers recently in what a source described as a 'hangover' from the 500 job cuts that then CEO Josef Ackermann said in October last year would take place in the firm's Corporate Banking and Securities division.

Sources familiar with the matter said that the bank fired at least three people in the Hong Kong equities division earlier this month. They included Michael Bugel, a managing director in equity sales, Tom Clapham, a director, and Hue Lu, an analyst.

In India, one of the sources said, the bank sacked a total of five junior bankers in the equity sales and research teams.

These cuts followed the departure of three bankers in another division, equity capital markets, including China equity capital markets co-head Will Li. A source familiar with the matter said that Li had accepted voluntary redundancy, and would move to the fund management industry.

On June 13, veteran debt capital markets banker Patrick Tsang resigned from the firm as head of fixed income capital markets, in what two sources with knowledge of the situation said was a move unrelated to the job cuts in equities. Tsang will leave the financial industry, the sources said, and will be succeeded by global risk syndicate head Herman Van den Wall Bake.

On June 15, UBS's Guy Wylie became the second capital markets head in a week after Deutsche's Tsang to resign, with the firm electing not to replace him and instead have the debt team report directly to Joseph Chee, head of global capital markets in Asia. That move eliminates a layer of management and will reduce costs at the Swiss bank.

Goldman cut six staffers in Australia in the last two weeks - a mix of equity sales, analysts and equity desk employees, including equity sales trader Mark Steer, two sources said.

Aside from CLSA, the banks mentioned in the story declined comment.

"A lot of people are bored. If you're in sales, no one is calling. If you're a trader, there's no flow," said a financial services recruiter who did not want to be named.

GRAVY TRAIN

Lister, the former Societe Generale banker, said that unlike 2008, when Asia bounced back quickly from the global crisis, the current European debt crisis exposes deep, structural issues in the financial system.

Nevertheless, she believes Asia is still the best place to be for an executive in the financial industry.

"From a professional standpoint, I felt my job wasn't completed. I had just started building relationships with clients and colleagues," said Lister, who was at the bank for 18 months.

With few banks hiring, smaller boutique operations may welcome job seekers, as senior bankers are seeing less opportunities within the major institutions.

"We've been approached by several people at the managing director level from bulge bracket banks in the last 3 months," says Chris Leahy, co-founder at strategic advisory group Blackpeak, referring to the top financial institutions.

"One senior M&A banker told me that he thinks the gravy train is over for many bulge bracket bankers like himself and that he might better be able to monetise his contacts and talent at a smaller firm," said Leahy, himself a former investment banker and head of Kroll in Asia.

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