For finance pros, Asia expat life losing perks
For most financial market professionals in this city and other hubs
across Asia, the days of extravagant expatriate life have ended. For now
The standard HK$200,000 per month ($25,641) housing allowance for top
bankers is gone or going in most cases.
Paid-for chauffeurs to tote executives and their families around the
steep hills of Hong Kong are scarcer, as are free memberships to
exclusive country, golf or dinner clubs that may otherwise cost more
than HK$2.1 million to join.
Free private school education for the kids, roughly $10,000 per child
at international schools, is getting scaled back too.
And in another sign of lean times, corporate ships for pleasure
cruises around Hong Kong's myriad beaches and outlying islands are
getting auctioned off, with UBS AG among the financial institutions to
recently set plans to part with its junk boat reserved for employees and
Many banking executives from Wall Street and Europe still live a life
of luxury in Asia. But for many others, the "expat" life of perks is a
"Those kind of packages will not be offered to the extent they were
in the past," said Paul Lucas, vice president for real estate at Pricoa
Starting last December, Morgan Stanley, like other Wall Street banks,
began rolling housing benefits into salaries. New hires, in most cases,
will not be granted housing allowances, sources inside the bank say.
Hong Kong's elite band of property agents, tasked with renting out
the territory's most desired addresses including luxury condominiums and
grand colonial mansions overlooking the city's iconic harbour, have been
rubbing their wounds of late.
"My record was a HK$320,000 ($41,290) (rent per month) mansion that
was around 4,000 square feet with a full sea view," said a property
specialist surnamed Lai who's helped senior foreign executives find
luxury homes for the past 13 years.
Residential rental prices dropped, by some estimates, more than 30
percent earlier this year. Prices have stabilised, and may soon rise,
but are still nowhere near the levels reached in early 2008.
"Recently though, we haven't done many deals, only those around
HK$100,000 (rent per month)," added Lai, who could only reveal his
surname given strict confidentiality agreements.
HSBC sold its junk boats several years ago but still owns bungalows
spread throughout the region for off-sites and weekend getaways for
employees lucky enough to be on top of the waiting list.
The cutbacks have been felt beyond Hong Kong. In Singapore, a rival
expatriate haven preferred for its leafy, tropical environment and
cleaner air, foreigners have also been pinched.
"It is very rare now, unless you are talking about someone at a
managing director level, for someone being offered an expat package,"
said Craig Brewer, manager of banking and financial services at staffing
firm Hudson Global Resources in Singapore.
But Singapore is less known for high society perks compared with Hong
Kong, where ostentatious displays of wealth are a part of the city's
capitalist psyche. According to Brewer, most offshore recruits his firm
deals with are hired on local terms.
The size of housing allowances may not seem like much for people
within the financial industry. For those outside it, the numbers look
staggering, especially when considering that $5,000-$10,000 per month
will fetch a pretty nice apartment in New York City with ample space.
One Asia Pacific head of a Western investment bank who lives in Hong
Kong takes in HK$375,000 ($48,000) per month in housing allowance alone,
according to a banker who used to work for him.
In fact, at many U.S. and European banks, the top housing allowance
metric for expatriate managing directors, one of the highest levels one
can reach at a bank, was around HK$200,000 per month. Even operations
people within banks, who don't bring in fee revenues, could take home
HK$90,000 per month.
That is changing. And while the shift may not be public, its trail is
Anecdotal evidence gathered in the last six months shows a herd of
bankers moving from palatial flats to more modest abodes, or relocating
to less exclusive and cheaper districts.
"What we've seen amongst some financial institutions is that they've
changed their benchmarks," said Lee Quane, the Asian director of ECA
International, which advises on expatriate packages and allowances.
He estimates that the average 2008/09 price for a 3-bedroom apartment
in Hong Kong in a mix of expat areas was around HK$90,000 per month
These things add up.
"Benefits can sometimes be up to about two times more than the base
salary of the employee for Hong Kong," said Quane.
In addition to housing and school allowances, business class air
travel and free trips home used to be a given at financial institutions.
For some, overseas packages even included membership to fancy recreation
clubs like the Aberdeen Marina Club, where memberships can cost HK$2.1
The pull-back in perks is, not surprisingly, being met with some
resistance. But given the extremity of the global financial crisis, a
crisis fueled in large part by banks taking on too much risk, people are
generally understanding of the new policies.
"They're being backed into a corner. They don't like it but there's
nowhere to go, there's no alternative," said a U.S. fund manager and
former banker, who asked not to be named. "Firms are saying we need some
of your skin in this game as well."