Eighty-hour weeks. Multibillion-dollar deals. Huge bonuses. Until recently, life as an investment banker in Hong Kong was both intense and lucrative.
These days, it’s anything but. The big China deals that lined rainmakers’ pockets for decades have evaporated. Banks and law firms alike are cutting jobs. Those advisers who remain are chasing smaller deals and taking extended vacations.
“The golden era of high-flying investment bankers and advisers is pretty much gone,” said Veronique Lafon-Vinais, an investment banker for more than two decades who now teaches finance at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Business School.
In a bad year for deals globally, the value of mergers and acquisitions in mainland China and Hong Kong has fallen 6% to about $185 billion, Bloomberg-compiled data show. That’s on course to be the lowest total for any year since 2013 and little more than half the annual average since then.
The decline in initial public offerings is more extreme. This year is poised to be the worst for Hong Kong debuts since 2001, just after the dot-com bubble burst, with $4.6 billion of IPOs. That’s a fraction of the $52 billion raised three years ago and down 85% from the past 10-year average of $31 billion.
Interviews with more than a dozen advisers suggest that the environment is expected to remain challenging next year, with some saying activity is unlikely to pick up until at least 2025. The advisers asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information.
The overhangs they cite are numerous, including rising overseas financing costs; volatile markets; strained ties between Beijing and Washington; as well as President Xi Jinping’s lingering crackdowns on industries such as property, tech and finance. Slumping valuations in Hong Kong’s stock market and tighter regulatory controls are also deterring Chinese companies from listing.
Just last week, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. shocked investors by terminating plans to spin off and list its $11 billion cloud business. The company, which cited U.S. restrictions on chip sales to China for the reversal, said it’s also suspending a listing for the popular grocery business Freshippo.
The result of the changed environment for the investment banking industry is less swagger, more thrift. The business-class travel and high expense accounts have been cut back, with Zoom calls increasingly replacing face-to-face meetings. Rainmakers have been told to roll up their sleeves on deals in countries and sectors they aren’t familiar with.
With deals shrinking in size and frequency, many advisers are taking advantage of having what used to be a rare commodity: free time.
One senior investment banker traveled overland from the Kyrgyzstan/China border to Turkey with his son on a $40-a-day budget as part of a monthlong break. Another spent four weeks trekking in the fjords of Norway and the mountains of Canada on two vacations this year. A third took her family hiking in Italy and the Swiss Alps. Others took lengthy sojourns in New Zealand, Croatia and southern France.
Family time has replaced overtime. A banking executive revels in taking his daughter to hockey practice every week and having dinner with his wife. High-end gyms, too, are benefiting, as bankers exercise regularly during the workday.
Yet behind the travel and more relaxed lifestyle lies anxiety about the future.
“In this current environment of slow deal flow and layoffs in the finance industry, people are keen to take long holidays, but I expect they also are worried to be away from their office for too long,” said Simon Kavanagh, a partner at the Asia-focused investment advisory boutique BDA Partners. “They fear their job may no longer be there when they come back.”
To be sure, banks are contending with a slump in deals around the world. M&A volumes in the U.S. this year are at a decade low of $1.4 trillion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. In terms of IPOs, about $25 billion has been raised on U.S. exchanges this year, a modest bump compared with 2022 but down more than 90% from a blockbuster year in 2021.
Yet the duration and depth of the slump in China, as well as the poor outlook, is prompting banks to take action after earlier expanding aggressively. In the past year, Wall Street banks including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley have conducted multiple rounds of layoffs in Hong Kong.
UBS Group AG cut about two dozen investment bankers in Asia, mainly China-focused roles based in Hong Kong and including several managing directors, Bloomberg News reported last month. In June, JPMorgan Chase & Co. slashed about 30 Asia dealmaking jobs, with Hong Kong and China-based staff taking the biggest hit.
“We’re seeing large number of analysts to managing directors leaving investment banks as deals dry up, especially ones focused on China projects,” said Sue Wei, a Hong Kong-based managing director at recruiting firm Hays Plc.
That’s prompted some to consider a new career. After one senior M&A banker was pushed out at a global bank along with his entire team, he decided to leave the industry behind after almost three decades and is now considering startups or an advisory role for corporate boards.
Compensation, too, has taken a hit, with payouts for investment bankers in Asia the worst since the global financial crisis.
The slump in dealmaking is reverberating across other businesses, including law firms and consultancies.
Linklaters LLP laid off 30 lawyers across its Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong offices due to the downturn in China. Dentons is retreating by hiving off its mainland Chinese operations.
“This current market is very challenging, perhaps the toughest deal environment I’ve ever seen in my career,” said Frank Bi, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Ashurst LLP and co-head of the firm’s corporate transactions practice in Asia. “Dealmakers need to adapt to a new reality and find new ways of generating business.”
Bankers are now pouncing on smaller deals that previously would have been under the radar.
When a private equity firm sought to sell Hong Kong soy-sauce maker Amoy Food Ltd. earlier this year for about $300 million, about 15 international banks competed for a role to find a buyer, according to people familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Citigroup Inc. secured the mandate in the end.
“We’re seeing bulge bracket banks aggressively compete with us for sell-side mandates on deals we would not have seen them before,” BDA’s Kavanagh said. “Many investment bankers now feel the best way to secure their job for say another six months is to have some mandate, no matter how good or bad quality that is.”
The shift toward small-to-midsize deals isn’t bad for all firms. Boutiques such as BDA are benefiting, said Kavanagh, with the company developing a strong pipeline of deals to work on in the coming months.
Those searching for optimism point to Xi’s pledge to support Hong Kong as an international finance center. A thaw in relations between Beijing and Washington could yet see the two-way flow of capital resume.
Some firms are expanding as others cut back. Deutsche Bank AG has hired about 60 bankers in the region this year, with almost half focused on Hong Kong and China, according to Mayooran Elalingam, head of the bank’s investment banking coverage and advisory in Asia Pacific.
“China’s current deal flow is a far cry from the boom times,” Elalingam said. “Yet we’re having some early-stage dialogue with both private and state-owned enterprises that are looking at potential acquisitions in places that are more receptive to Chinese investments, including Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa.”
The law firm Ashurst is putting resources into other parts of Asia, such as Singapore and Japan, where there are more deals.
“We’re currently training a group of corporate lawyers so that they can work on transactions in Southeast Asia,” Bi said.
It’s also clear China wants foreign investment to upgrade its struggling economy, which may lead to greater efforts to lure overseas funds — such as Xi’s recent visit to the US.
Communist Party officials face an uphill struggle as Western firms sour on the country’s prospects. Underscoring the challenge, a gauge of foreign investment into China has turned negative for the first time since records began in 1998.
Many of the advisers interviewed for this story fear this tough environment is here to stay, with some saying the drought is the worst they’ve experienced in careers spanning more than three decades.
Hong Kong’s prolonged downturn is reinforcing the fin-de-siecle feel. Home prices have plunged to a six-year low. Office vacancy rates are near an all-time high. The local stock benchmark is heading for a record fourth year of declines. High-end restaurants are struggling, with the two-Michelin-starred French restaurant Ecriture closing suddenly this fall.
The glory days — when Chinese firms were snapping up trophy assets in Europe and the U.S., Chinese IPOs were among the biggest in the world, foreign investors clamored to buy the debt of companies such as China Evergrande Group, all while Wall Street advisers took a hefty cut — seem very much in the past.
For those just starting their career and considering entering the industry, Lafon-Vinais, the finance professor, has some advice.
“I encourage them to look into other, more innovative areas of finance,” she said. “There’s more to life than becoming an investment banker.”