Sky high in Hong Kong

In euphoria of the hand-over, it just can't get enough good accountants , Jon Bunn reports. And China needs even more...

Hong Kong is booming. Business in the British colony, which returns to the Chinese fold on 1 July, grew by 7 per cent in real terms last year and the economic frenzy is forecast to continue. A British Chamber of Commerce survey last month revealed that 93 per cent of its members are banking on sustained business growth well into the next millennium. Their overwhelming confidence is bolstered by China's commitment in its Joint Declaration to 50 years of economic stability in Hong Kong.

It all adds up to one thing for the accountancy profession - more work.

Big Six firms in Hong Kong are enjoying annual growth in business of between 12 per cent and 15 per cent. It is an achievement that is held back frustratingly by a lack of top grade staff. KPMG's managing partner in Hong Kong, Nick Etches, said: "If we could get more good quality staff it would be easy to beat these figures.

"We are recruiting from overseas and encouraging more Hong Kong Chinese accountants to come back. But we are recruiting in a market which is extremely active, and competing for the best staff with our own firm and other employers in the UK and elsewhere."

Etches, a former president of the Hong Kong Society of Accountants, sees China as a huge opportunity for the profession. The world's most populous nation is gradually being re-opened to the West and Etches predicts that an increasing number of Chinese companies will seek flotations, relying on business advice from the West. The necessary accounting standards, based on the West's, are still under development by the Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants (Cicpa). The People's Republic's participation as an observer on the International Accounting Standards Committee will help its own fledgling standards committee to develop a comprehensive and workable set, but that process currently relies on the watchful and guiding eye of the HKSA.

As China opens further, so will work opportunities for accountants. But there is a huge difference between working in Hong Kong and China.

Richard Parnell, a director of the accountancy recruitment agency Robert Walters, said the company's Hong Kong office was performing well ahead of targets, but was struggling to find accountants keen to take up a contract in China.

"There is a real shortage of accountants willing to switch to China from Hong Kong," claims Parnell, who believes employment opportunities in China will flourish post-hand-over. "It's a bit like going from London to Eastern Europe - the money's good, but it's regarded as a hardship posting with poor infrastructure and a business population not well-versed in capitalist philosophy."

Talk of professionals fleeing the colony for competing Asian economic centres such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia is dismissed as hyped- up nonsense by Hong Kong loyalists.

Indeed, many of the Hong Kong Chinese professionals are flocking back having secured "insurance" residency in countries such as Canada and Australia. Should the political situation turn nasty, safety beckons in the form of a foreign passport.

Ernst & Young's regional director for Asia, Richard Findlater, says "native" accountants now constitute a majority in the colony's firms but noted a difference of opinion between the generations. "Younger accountants see the future resting with China," he explains, "while those nearing the end of their careers have a different view.

"We are not expecting our people to leave in huge numbers, but each will decide in time whether Hong Kong under Chinese rule is an environment they want to work in." It is not surprising Hong Kong remains an attractive option, he adds.

Robert Walters' Parnell rejected flatly the mischievous "sinking ship" theory. "If anything it is the other way round," he argues.

"There's a strong expat community, excellent infrastructure, high-quality of life, salaries 10 per cent to 15 per cent higher than London and income tax at just 15 per cent."

The Chinese authorities are unashamedly keen to employ local staff where possible, which could pose problems for backpackers seeking casual labour or secretarial positions. But experts are agreed that anyone with an accountancy qualification should face few problems securing employment.

"We have assurance from China that they want the investment banking and financial institutions to thrive," says Parnell, who relies on finance - particularly from major US multi-nationals - for 60 per cent of Robert Walters' Hong Kong appointments. "It's very unlikely they will slap major restrictions on those sectors, although work visas will be needed for UK citizens."

Hong Kong is barely visible on the map next to China, and naturally the Republic's population - and therefore potential and need to produce accountants - dwarfs its neighbour. A great fear among Hong Kong's 12,000 accountants is that the hand-over will open the floodgates for their Chinese counterparts.

KPMG's Etches explains: "The HKSA was extremely concerned that we were going to be forced to give Cicpa reciprocity. Our members could have been outnumbered by 10 to one.

"But we know now it will be impossible. Unless Chinese accountants have a recognised qualification, such as ACCA, and live in Hong Kong, they will not be able to join the HKSA and practice"n

Jon Bunn is deputy news editor of `Accountancy Age'.

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