Back about 35 years ago, Hong Kong was a proud financial hub in Asia. There were lots of international trade, people had real global knowledge and were proud to conduct operations with universal standards and processes at the top of their game. Where are we today?
For countless times, I hear Hong Kong being criticized over its backwardness in financial services, as compared with the Chinese mainland’s super-fast acceleration, such as in mobile payments. Unfair as it seems, Hong Kong being a city and the mainland a vast territory, people seem intent to take a jab at the once top player, without realizing that changing an existing structure is more difficult than building a new one. The mainland has the political and economic advantage in rapidly building new structures without tearing down the old.
In the past decade or so, every business became obsessed with mainland consumers. Attracted by their wallets and willingness to spend, companies modified strategies to fit in. Advertisements started using only simplified Chinese, sales offers resembled those on the mainland market, seminars opted for Putonghua instead of Cantonese. This action polarized almost every company’s customer base. Our changing tourism profile sends an unmistakable warning signal; 32 million out of the 43 million visitors came from the mainland, Hong Kong Tourism Board statistics for January to September this year show. I have advised and publicly warned in the media about our vulnerabilities when faced with this phenomenon. In investor terms, putting all your eggs in one basket is never a healthy portfolio mix.
The mainland is opening up more of its markets directly to a global audience. If Hong Kong continues to dwell on its former role as an intermediary to the mainland, there will come a day when the basket totally drops and all eggs are lost
Our core financial businesses are suffering from just such an impact. The insurance industry, with an influx of mainland customers, had to implement new measures and regulations when the central government started to crack down on money laundering and tighten controls on capital outflows. Agents and other customers had to follow suit which made doing business quite difficult. In our venture capital world, venture capitalists have to fit into mainland investors’ mindset in order to “sell” the projects as worthy in the eyes of mainland investors. The process is that venture capitalists have to put forward their unready ideas to satisfy the entire mainland market needs. The end-result is that, maybe, the investment deal terms are not attractive and thus fail to elicit better responses from the international investor community.
What happens when the “basket falls” even further? The mainland’s anti-corruption policies and capital outflow controls made companies realize that good times can go cold overnight. United States President Donald Trump’s recent visit to China opened more doors for the mainland to extend its direct financial reach to an ever larger global audience, discussing new policies to let foreign companies invest in mainland financial entities. Will the mainland still need Hong Kong for its financial expertise and services or as an intermediary to the external world? The mainland has been reaching to the outside world for a long time, and Shanghai has long been eyeing for this kingdom. It just feels Hong Kong is still sleeping on this.
When I speak with different fellow investors, entrepreneurs, family offices or institutions in Hong Kong, I have a sense that many still dwell on the “good old days”, when they still felt proud of being a “finance professional” and people still valued their input. I see a very different story when I look at the countless mainland-based financial firms setting up shop in Hong Kong, hiring second- and third-generation millennials from rich families, handling all the finances of such mainland wealth. It’s obvious some people are still dreaming.
Hong Kong must expand its mentality and reach in the financial sector, and it has to go both ways. Those operating businesses here will need to understand the risks of catching up to mainland’s policies, and should place their focus and attention on a more balanced international market. The Hong Kong government should take reference to other economies, in being more active and smart in promoting new local fintech and practices in this sector, expanding to other parts of the world. I frequently review projects that have the backing and support of the local government; that is a significant factor for fund support in the eyes of the investors.
On the other hand, while quite a number of different companies are listed on the main board, financial regulators can attempt to reform Hong Kong’s secondary growth enterprise market board by setting new favorable terms and actively promoting to welcome international companies that may be young but have proven successful for listing in the city. There is no immediate need for a third board (proposed for pure startups with difficult valuations), and it is a much safer option for investors and Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing.
The mainland is opening up more of its markets directly to a global audience. If Hong Kong continues to dwell on its former role as an intermediary to the mainland, there will come a day when the basket totally drops and all eggs are lost.
The author is the managing director for Rouge Ventures, a venture capital and advisory firm.