China’s new allure for financial workers

Marketplace Staff Jun 22, 2009
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China’s new allure for financial workers

Marketplace Staff Jun 22, 2009
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Kai Ryssdal: The U.S. unemployment rate hit 9.4 percent last month. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today it’ll probably hit 10 percent sooner rather than later.

For a lot of people — foreign students included — the ones who came here looking for better jobs, the U.S. may not look like such a land of opportunity these days. And the expats’ home countries are working hard to get their best and brightest back. From Shanghai, Marketplace’s Scott Tong reports that is especially true of China.


SCOTT TONG: Shanghai makes a powerful first impression. The elevator in the city’s newest and tallest skyscraper strikes a space-age note. The theme is obvious: China is the future. The buildings, bullet trains and cellphones are its hardware.

HOWARD Chao: But the fact is, it’s not just hardware that runs a financial system.

Howard Chao heads the China practice at the law firm O’Melveny and Myers. He says for Shanghai to be a world-class financial center, it also needs world-class talent.

Chao: A lot of it relies on people, on know how, on institutions, and on the legal system. And a lot of that still remains to be built.

You start that building by finding China’s best and brightest people overseas. And luring them back home. We found two such high fliers in the financial district, at an upmarket coffee shop.

Forty-one-year-old Mr. Li says he just gave up a gig managing billions for a mutual fund in Atlanta; he came back to China to be a regulator. He says he wants to be part of a thrilling moment in the nation’s history.

Mr. Li: Maybe 20 years later my son asks me, “Daddy when China grew so fast 2000-something, where you are? I want to tell him I was in China.”

Both Li and his colleague Mr. Chen were plucked from job fairs in the U.S. run by Shanghai financial groups. Thirty-four-year-old Chen was targeted for his Wall Street investment banking experience. For all of New York’s recent problems, it’s still viewed out here as the gold standard.

Mr. Chen: U.S. capital markets is like in the car stage, China probably the bicycle stage. There is no doubt U.S., they the most advanced market in the world.

Shanghai has declared plans to introduce new financial products, like stock index futures and margin trading, but it needs practitioners like these guys to study and design them.

China can’t match their old salaries. But it can tap their patriotism.

Again Mr. Li.

Mr. Li: I have been in America for 10 years, I didn’t make too much contributions. This decision gives me a chance to do something.

The Chinese government counted 69,000 returnees last year. That’s up 55 percent from the previous year. Philip Partnow at UBS Securities in Beijing says for these folks, New York or London is no longer the default option.

Philip Partnow: The way people have thought about their career evolution has changed. That was inevitable as China rises, but I think this financial crisis has probably accelerated that process.

Even so, most of the Chinese students who go to the U.S. stay there. It’s just that now, America is retaining fewer of them. A new study by researchers at Duke and Harvard Universities has the ominous title “America’s Loss is the World’s Gain.”

Shanghai is gaining, in part, because the quality of life here gets better by the day. Here’s Mr. Chen, the Wall Street alum.

Mr. Chen: Shanghai is an international city already, you can see a lot of Starbucks, Subways, Coldstones ice cream shops.

Make no mistake, returnees do face tradeoffs. Chen’s colleague Li left his wife and son back in Atlanta, because her career’s is over there. And don’t get him started on Shanghai pollution.

Moreover, those who come home aren’t always welcome. They can face resentment because they earn more than those who didn’t train abroad. And they’re often treated as outsiders.

Zhou Libou is China’s most famous stand-up comedian. Part of his regular shtick is to mock the returnees.

Zhou Libou: Comrades, don’t look at these overseas returnees as superstars. They came back because they couldn’t make it over there.

The returnees face sky-high expectations once they’re back in China. Even so, more and more are returning here. Coming home to the new “land of opportunity.”

In Shanghai, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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