Global Banks Start to Cut Workforce in China Amid Political Uncertainty

China’s financial opening that started three years ago is at risk of going down as a slump in deals and Beijing’s political tensions with the West force global banks to review their plans to benefit from the $56 trillion financial market. While the executives publicly say they are in for the long term, banks such as Goldman Sachs and UBS have started to cut China-focused investment bankers. Some global banks expect to cut more next year and are prepared for major staff exits as bonuses vanish.

Under these circumstances, doubts grow over whether China will ever become the lucrative market once envisaged. 10% to 20% of high-level bankers are likely be paid no bonus this year and more than half are in for a record drop. Goldman and other banks are counting on the diminished payouts to keep costs down as they wait for a deal revival.

The dreams of a lucrative business have shattered as Beijing’s zero Covid policy and Xi’s crackdown on private sector have slowed down growth. Xi, who secured a historic third term last month, has been emphasizing national security and common prosperity over the market economy and wealth creation. After Xi installed allies in all key posts at the once-in-five-year Communist Party Congress last month, markets responded with a $6 trillion stock blowup.

Banks are also looking to narrow the pay gap among bankers rather than cutting jobs as deals may bounce back in the second half of next year. Others predict 10% to 15% of the staff will quit because of the near-zero bonus pool. Morgan Stanley is targeting to cut about 10% of its 500 person Asia-Pacific ex-Japan investment banking workforce in an upcoming retrenchment.

Goldman Sachs has led the way, already firing investment bankers in September, the majority of whom were focused on Greater China.

A few years ago, the likes of Goldman and JPMorgan Chase were allowed to take control of joint ventures they had operated in China with little success over the past decade. Banks quickly drew up plans to double or even triple their workforce in the country, in the hunt for billions of dollars in potential profits.

Meanwhile, banks have also been cutting jobs elsewhere as deals slow amid rising interest rates.

Credit Suisse has lost nearly half the senior managers at its China securities ventures in recent months. The Swiss bank was warned by Chinese regulators that it faced delays in getting its needed licenses until it fills the positions.

Banks were also stung by a series of high-profile departures this year, including the senior China heads at the securities units of UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse.

Despite growing uncertainties, China’s attractiveness with its wealth and expanding middle class remains palpable. After signs of Beijing easing its Covid controls have sent the markets soaring. Hong Kong’s main index rose by 18% this month.

Beijing is now moving more aggressively to backstop its struggling property sector, which may also boost sentiment. Authorities on Friday issued a notice to financial institutions laying out plans to ensure the “stable and healthy development” of the property sector. The notice included 16 measures that range from addressing the liquidity crisis faced by developers to loosening down-payment requirements for homebuyers.

Chinese policy makers are continuing to promise to keep opening up the economy. Securities Regulatory Commission said some global banks have already exceeded their plans in China and warned to not bet against the country since its opening can only become “bigger and bigger.”

Part of Xi’s crackdown has included limiting the ability of domestic companies to sell shares overseas, triggering an 88% slump in those deals. Domestic deals and cross border mergers have also cratered. China is on track for its first year of foreign portfolio outflows in more than two decades, possibly amounting to over $100 billion this year, according to calculations by Morgan Stanley. That would compare to an inflow of $200 billion in 2020 to 2021.

Goldman has done four deals in mainland China this year and UBS five, topping Morgan Stanley’s two. They face significant competition from local brokerages such as Citic Securities. UBS is the best global bank in terms of rankings for China stock deals, placing 11th.

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