One of the financial players best positioned to take stock of the zeitgeist is Michael Page International. This recruitment firm employs more than 3,800 in over 152 offices across the globe, including Hong Kong.
Anthony Thompson, managing director of Michael Page International and Page Personnel, explains how skittish sentiment has made itself felt locally. "While there is considerable negative sentiment in relation to Europe and the US, the market in Asia is robust," he says. "We have released a trading statement that shows our revenues have risen by 42 per cent in Asia [from] 2010. We have more active recruitment assignments than ever before, which is significant as we have operated in Asia Pacific for over 25 years. Yes, there is an element of caution creeping into some sectors, but overall it is very positive."
Michael Page's Q4 Employment Index for Hong Kong showed 35 per cent of employers are intending to increase staff numbers, a remarkably positive indicator and consistent with the company's Q3 report which yielded a figure of 36 per cent.
It would appear that the current downbeat market sentiment might afford some advantages for Michael Page, but Thompson gives this view some context.
"The market is not downbeat. In all of our offices in Asia, we have experienced substantial expansion in terms of office space and headcount and this is in response to continued high demand for quality staff across a broad range of industries," he says.
"Irrespective of market conditions, we take a long-term view to hiring and always look to add talented people. We have a strong organic growth culture and look to develop and grow our people with a view to them working with us for many years."
Many companies have human resources (HR) contingency plans for looming difficult economic times, but Michael Page is able to rely on its economies of scale. "With recruitment having the potential to be influenced by the economic cycle and overall business confidence, our strategy of diversification, both by geography and discipline, aims to diversify the group's exposure away from any one geographic area or business sector," Thompson says.
Michael Page's own headcount is rising, with big hiring in all locations across its Asia operations. It has also opened extension offices in countries in which it is already active, and is launching businesses in India and Malaysia this year. "All industries and areas have experienced growth with engineering, supply chain and logistics, HR, legal, sales, and commercial accounting providing examples of areas that have been particularly positive," Thompson says.
He says that, far from a worrisome time, this is a rosy period for one of the largest professional services recruitment companies in the world. "I don't think there has ever been a better time to become a recruitment consultant in Asia as the world's growth engine," Thompson says.
Other key market players are similarly upbeat. "You must remember, this is not the first time we have coped with gloomy forecasts. And when 1998 and Sars and other events impacted Hong Kong's economy, we managed to get through and even emerge strengthened by the experience," says Rosetta Fong Sut-sam, CEO and executive director, Convoy Financial Services.
It is the largest independent insurance and Mutual Provident Fund scheme brokerage firm in Hong Kong, with over 1,000 independent financial advisers.
"We had a warning of challenging times ahead when HSBC recently [announced plans to lay off] 3,000 of its workers," Fong says. "But we have an enduring policy of no-layoffs, rain or shine. If need be, management salaries can be trimmed, but we really leave the headcount alone."
Fong also explains that harder economic times yield important advantages. "There's considerably more supply in the labour market and higher quality candidates available," she notes.
Convoy appears to be less susceptible to challenges when the business cycle heads south. "We are always expanding, even through downturns," she says. "Our headcount is currently expanding, and I would say that we are in a natural growth phase, regardless of external factors. `Convoyees' [the company staff] enjoy a lot of opportunities, because we're expanding the whole group, both through geographical expansion, and by diversifying our businesses."