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Bankers seek a new balance
Published on Friday, 20 Nov 2009
Carrie Leung says the banking industry has to regain the trust of the investing public in the wake of the economic meltdown.
Photo: May Tse

After the chastening experiences of the past couple of years, banking professionals and consumers can find encouragement in the fact that much talk within the sector is now about growth, new paradigms and achieving the right balance between regulation and innovation.

That is clearly reflected in the themes and topics to be discussed at the annual conference organised by the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers (HKIB). The event, on November 26 at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, has been titled "Ride on the Global Recovery - The Strategies for 2010", to signify returning optimism while pointing to the evident need for change.

Noting that the past 12 months had been "perhaps the most challenging and difficult in the history of the financial markets", Carrie Leung Ka-lai, HKIB chief executive, said the main objective was to address issues directly relevant to the local banking community.

Too many conferences were "very macro", with speakers advancing academic theories and speculating on long-term economic policy. Now it was important to discuss current problems, immediate prospects and ways in which altered regulations were likely to affect day-to-day operations.

"This conference is quite different because we will talk about shorter-term strategies and how bankers should react to local issues in the next year," Leung said. "Bank management teams have gone through a period of ensuring survival. They are now figuring out how to sustain their business in a new environment and where to look for growth."

With this in mind, the conference was designed to be "macro, but not remote". The agenda would include presentations by industry heavyweights, regulators, research houses and external experts to cover different levels and dimensions. Keynote speeches would deal with topics such as Hong Kong's competitive edge as China's international financial centre, developing renminbi business and the regulatory response to the financial crisis.

There would also be panel discussions or talks on themes such as establishing priorities for 2010 and enhancing retail banking performance.

The afternoon session would feature four breakout sessions catering to distinct areas of specialist interest. These would centre on business innovation and people strategies; corporate banking; operations and information systems; and the new landscape for wealth management within retail banking.

"We have also invited the Hong Kong Arbitration Society to come and talk about recent cases where they have helped banks and customers resolve disputes and to explain key learning points," Leung said.

In another innovative move, she said the organisers had lined up a psychologist to speak about rebuilding confidence.

This was crucial on several levels. The industry had to regain the trust of the investing public; specific institutions had to get clients to believe in them again; and staff had to have renewed faith in their employer's strategies and the products and services they were selling to customers.

"The HKIB engaged this psychologist last year to conduct in-house training for banks and help employees regain confidence," Leung said. "Employees were so worried about the Lehman Brothers incident as friends and relatives were constantly questioning them. If you are the customer relationship manager and are supposed to represent the bank, it is not professional if you do not have the proper emotion to handle these inquiries."

She added that the HKIB had a responsibility to identify and cater for such needs as part of the duty to help the banking sector. This form of "emotional support" was essentially a practical extension of other types of training and continuing professional development already on offer.

As an industry veteran with 20 years of banking experience, Leung said the recent crisis had brought certain things into sharper focus. Firstly, it had shown how technology, the speed of information and a multiplicity of products had made the role of the professional banker much more complex.

Secondly, it had highlighted the fact that the industry could not afford to have only one kind of banker. It was necessary to have both generalists and specialists to sense risk more effectively and see the wider implications of certain actions.

And thirdly, it made clear that if Hong Kong were to enhance its position as an international financial centre, it must promote banking qualifications, not just for frontline staff or senior managers but also for IT or HR staff.

"We need to provide the education and mechanisms to strengthen their banking knowledge, so people can 'smell' risk before it escalates and alert senior management," Leung said.

Most of the 200-plus attendees at the conference were expected to be management-level bankers. But some seats would be reserved for university and Vocational Training Council students, as well as interested members of the public.