Jitters over looming job cuts in banks

Singapore bank worker Mr Tan (not his real name) will celebrate Chinese New Year in a not-so-festive mood, given the axe hanging over him and his colleagues at Barclays Singapore.

Mr Tan saw around 70 of his colleagues laid off last month as the British bank moved to slash 1 000 jobs worldwide. And he reckons more are on the way out.

“In the next few months, the bank will shrink its finance back office which currently has about 250 people. On top of that, the front office will lose 30 to 40 people in March, and then the same number again in May,” he told The Straits Times last week.

Mr Tan’s distress reflects the huge uncertainties looming over the financial sector here, which employs more than 200 000 staff, with many fearing for their future amid news of job cuts and downsizing.

Before Barclays, Standard Chartered laid off a number of people in Singapore late last year as it axed 15 000 jobs globally. In July, the Royal Bank of Scotland trimmed its presence here, with hundreds of jobs cut.

Just last week, Credit Suisse announced that 4 000 jobs will be cut globally. No layoffs are expected in the Asia-Pacific region yet but it seems almost certain Singapore’s banking sector will keep losing jobs this year.

One reason is that high operating costs in Singapore are becoming harder to justify at a time when stringent capital requirements and market headwinds are already hurting earnings, a senior banker said.

The banker, who declined to be named, said: “These are very challenging times for the whole industry and for European banks in particular. Because of things like the Basel III buffer requirements, the cost of funding has gone up from 6 to 8 percent previously to 22 to 25 percent now. Essentially a global bank can only do one-third of the business we used to do.

“So we are all thinking where we can get the best return, to shore up capital. That does not bode well for Singapore, where annual average wage cost per head in the sector has gone from $63 000 in 2013 to $124 000 last year.

“In the past, Singapore had taken up a lot of global banks’ back office jobs and support roles. But now these will increasingly move to, for instance, the Philippines or India, where four vice-presidents can be hired for the cost of one (here).”

It does not help that choppy market conditions have also impacted the profitability of investment-related businesses such as fixed income, currencies and commodities (FICC) trading.

These units typically command big trading desks that require a large amount of human capital and technology. When the trading volume slows, job cuts will certainly follow to save costs.

This was what Morgan Stanley did last December, when it reportedly laid off around a quarter of its FICC unit in Singapore.

If the investment markets stay volatile, more mid-level banking jobs will leave Singapore, Singapore Management University finance professor Annie Koh noted.

“Aside from the low-level jobs, a lot of the middle office positions in Singapore are tied to specific asset classes, such as a China fund or emerging market equities,” noted Prof Koh.

“They will need a supply chain of people supporting the front desk, in areas such as compliance or risk management.

“When a bank moves the asset management away, there will be no need for the mid-office to stay too because the whole supply chain will have to follow. I think the loss of banking jobs at the lower level is a structural change.

“Those jobs are not coming back. But fortunately the mid- and high-level restructuring is likely just cyclical. I’m sure the funds will return when market conditions improve, then the jobs will come back.”

Between the short-term volatility and long-term cuts, the nation is having a harder look at how the banking sector’s transformation is affecting Singaporean job prospects.

Immediately after Barclays announced the layoffs earlier this month, NTUC contacted the bank to offer support to affected employees. This was the first time the union had approached a foreign, non-unionised bank, NTUC assistant secretary-general Patrick Tay said.

Mr Tay, an MP and leader of NTUC’s financial services cluster, believes job growth in the banking sector will slow even as new opportunities emerge.

“I expect to see more uncertainties, and more (job cut) announcements this year. In the longer term, we don’t expect booming employment growth in the banking industry. It’s about rebalancing and re-shifting within the banks themselves,” Mr Tay said.

“But we think there are at least two new areas of opportunities. The post-Lehman regulatory environment may be hurting the banks, but it’s also creating more compliance-related jobs. Singapore will also need more people able to do banking in the digital and e-service segment.”

Mr Neil Clark, managing director of financial job portal eFinancialCareers, agreed that risk, compliance and technology are the key growth areas in the banking sector.

“These are the areas that we’re seeing banks here investing in over the past few years. I think the industry and the Government are doing a good job to ensure a steady flow of banking talents for industry to be flexible — that’s why all the banks are still here, despite the job cuts,” Mr Clark added.

Prof Koh believes Singapore’s future as a banking hub will not be drastically different from now: “Core banking will not go away. The world still needs funding for goods flow and acquisitions.

“You still need corporate finance, and companies still need to restructure. And people will want to do all that here in Singapore, because of our excellent credit rating.

“There will be structural disruptions, make no mistake. But redeploying will follow trimming. The real challenge is to ensure we can upgrade and re-skill our bankers in time for the redeployment.”

In the years ahead, investment in training will remain at the fore for the banking industry, reflecting the Government’s focus on upskilling the local population.

NTUC is close to setting up a committee with the Monetary Authority of Singapore to lay out blueprints for local talent development in the sector. Details will be announced later this month, Mr Tay said.

The private sector is also chipping in. SMU’s Financial Training Institute, for instance, conducts government-subsidised courses for around 1 200 bankers yearly.

The momentum on this front must be sustained, even though the results will take years to materialise, said a senior investment banker. — straitstimes.

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