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Financier dispels emperor's myths
Published on Friday, 09 Sep 2011
Eddie Wang believes that some reported “facts” about the mainland’s financial institutions are “crying out” to be questioned.
Photo: Edward Wong
Alan Wong

Those looking for a large dose of good-humoured insights into the workings of the mainland banking scene left last week's Classified Post luncheon well satisfied.

In his speech, titled "China's Domestic Banking - Myths, Truths and Opportunities", veteran banker Eddie Wang refused to offer stock cliches.

"I don't need to tell you things like, `China is a big market', `There are lots of opportunities in China', or `My mother is a woman'," he assured his audience at the Happy Valley Racecourse venue.

Instead, he delved deeper, looking into the mainland banking system's decision-making processes, what lies beyond its slogans, and how mindsets and practices can be changed to ensure success when venturing into the global market.

Wang's CV allows him to speak with some authority on these subjects. Brought up in Hong Kong, he joined HSBC 32 years ago as a trainee and, based in Shanghai, was the bank's chief executive for China business between 1994 and 2002. In 2006, he was appointed president of the China Minsheng Banking Corporation, the first Hong Kong-Chinese banker to hold the top position in a mainland bank.

But "it's very difficult to tell who actually runs a bank in China", he conceded. "The bank's structure has three levels. The first level is the chairman, who is usually the party secretary. The second level is the leaders' group. This consists of the president and his deputies - maybe six deputies. The third level consists of general managers - the heads of the various departments.

"But the chairman doesn't run the bank - [he] makes decisions. The second level doesn't run the bank or make decisions - they represent the bank. The third manages the business - but they don't make decisions."

When Wang was appointed China CEO with HSBC, his authority stemmed from his role. This meant he had to take responsibility for what was or wasn't achieved. "But in China, it is the other way around. Contrary to what we learn in the management books - authority can be delegated but not responsibility - on the mainland, the chairman delegates his responsibility. And then, once you have the responsibility, you have the authority."

For those taking on what can be huge levels of responsibility, there are some assumptions that make their position less daunting. "One is, the system will not let us go down. The second is, we have enough money to work through any hiccups."

Wang believes that some reported "facts" about the mainland's financial institutions need to be questioned - especially if these institutions want to go global.

"When we see, for example, a sudden rise of 50 per cent in fee income, we can ask [the banks] why? If they say it came from investment banking, you can ask what sort of deals have you been doing?

"There's nothing to hide unless there is indeed something to hide," he said, adding that journalists and investors shouldn't settle for answers prepared by middle management. "I'd be proud of increasing fee income by 50 per cent," he confessed with some sarcasm, "but this is a miracle."

Similarly, the extremely low non-performing loan figures the banks report also seem too good to be true. "But no one ever wants to explain these numbers to either investors or reporters. Once again, there is a myth and a truth."

He cited a real need for people with the skill to communicate subtly because "the problem with the Chinese mindset is we don't want you to tell us what to do."

In Wang's view, there isn't really a corporate culture on the mainland - instead, there's a system for producing slogans to enhance the feel-good factor. "We believe no news is good news, they believe no good news is bad news."

He summed up the current goals of the mainland banks as: "We want to earn more next year."

He added: "In my case, I doubled the balance sheet in two years."

He considered the practice of asking few hard questions when making credit assessments as dangerous. "Mainland domestic banks always have a disciplinary inspection to protect the integrity of the system. They are not too concerned with the business risk, they are just concerned with the integrity of the system."

At the moment, the prevailing attitude is that "management is the cost you have to pay to do less business". However, Wang said, in a couple of years, when it's no longer possible to easily grow, the business people will wonder what the problem is. "The answer will be a lack of management."

He believes the problem arises from the lack of any meaningful executive training on the mainland.

He finds it sad that many people are hired on a transaction basis.

"The important question is how can we convince, maybe collectively, those in charge of the need for talent management." 

When it came to retaining talent, Wang said various issues needed to be tackled, such as the different salary scales in China which encourage staff to move on. And, he added, the replacement of bonuses with share options which would also encourage loyalty. However, Wang considers the ambitions and weaknesses of mainland banks as an opportunity for Hong Kong.

"For mainland banks wanting to go [international], I believe Hong Kong will be a very good springboard. Our government should let them know there are people available to help them here in Hong Kong."

Organised by Classified Post, the lunchtime event was sponsored by the recruitment specialists, Kelly.

Alan Wong, general manager at Kelly Services, sees his company playing a key role in bringing strong talents to mainland financial institutions.

"I think it was a good overview," said Amy Chan, senior HR manager with Wing Hang Bank. She liked Wang's remark that, in mainland banking, "the more you know, the less you seem to know".

Paul McSheaffrey, partner in financial services with KPMG, said Wang "spoke about talent management in Chinese banks. KMPG would be well placed to assist these banks." 

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