Hong Kong’s severe COVID restrictions hamper its green finance ambitions

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SYDNEY/HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s ambition to become a hub for green and sustainable businesses is under threat as its stringent and persistent border controls against COVID-19 make it harder for institutions to attract senior specialists financial.

Bankers and advisers said risks from Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy, which has already caused a talent shortage in China, are rising as most other countries ease coronavirus curbs.

Flight bans, lengthy and costly quarantine standards, limited access to public services and the threat of separation from family members who test positive have all scared away potential talent.

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“It’s getting harder and harder to find staff in Hong Kong,” said Tony Wong, founder of ESG specialist Alaya Consulting, a strategy and reporting firm.

“The city is trying to be a green investment hub globally, but we can’t get the staff. COVID and restrictions have made it more difficult to attract staff.

Hong Kong has stepped up its efforts in recent years to become a leader in environmental and social governance (ESG), including establishing working groups with government officials and global companies to develop a local talent pool.

And the city remains committed to becoming a green finance hub, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) said in a statement on Wednesday.

“These pandemic-related challenges are expected to be transitory and we believe that the fundamentals underpinning Hong Kong’s status…its robust financial system and its many opportunities for growth, including ESG-related activities. .. remain strong and intact.”

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The priority of moving towards a regional hub of green and sustainable finance was declared last October by the Deputy Director General of the HKMA, Edmond Lau.

As the global transition to a low-carbon economy gathers pace, ESG investments have topped $35.3 trillion, according to the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance, as institutional investors are increasingly rated on sustainability of their assets.

But Hong Kong’s ambitions are being tested as harsh COVID restrictions shrink its existing pool of overseas talent.

Adding to the bad news is the delay this week of launching its first retail green bond worth HK$6 billion ($768 million) due to the rapid spread of infections.

The push has prompted Hong Kong to adopt some of the toughest restrictions in the world, despite growing skepticism from some business leaders, medical experts and diplomats about the viability of a zero-COVID policy.

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Inbound flight bans on nine countries, from Australia to Britain and the United States, will last until April 20.

Other zero tolerance measures include the closure of entertainment venues, mandatory testing of entire buildings and close contacts sent to quarantine camps. In some cases, parents have been separated from young children admitted to hospital.

“The demand for ESG talent is huge, but one would look at Hong Kong thinking they can’t travel and meet their families,” a senior sustainability executive at a global asset manager told Reuters.

He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.

SINGAPORE RIVAL

The strict restrictions follow political ructions, including the worsening of Sino-US relations, which prompted an earlier exodus of expatriates from Hong Kong.

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ESG burnout is also being exacerbated by a loosening of the brakes in Singapore, a rival regional financial hub and ESG.

Traditionally seen as risk-averse, Singapore is opting for a more balanced approach to living with COVID, to protect its dense population while reopening its economy and borders.

In 2019, the wealthy city-state’s central bank rolled out a $2 billion green investment program and encouraged asset managers to strengthen local ESG teams.

A senior executive at a global asset manager said the central bank, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), was urging companies to bolster their workforces and preferred senior management to be based there.

MAS said its investment program will support initiatives to attract sustainability-focused asset managers to Singapore. The central bank said asset managers chosen for the program must demonstrate a strong commitment to deepening their green investing capabilities and have experienced teams to manage their strategies.

Andrea Wong, associate director at headhunter Robert Half, said she was aware of the relocation of a few ESG professionals to places like Singapore in recent months.

“Travel and quarantine restrictions inevitably make it harder to relocate talent from overseas to Hong Kong,” Wong added. ($1 = HK$7.8135) (Reporting by Scott Murdoch in Sydney and Selena Li in Hong Kong; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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