It may not be an official designation, but within the international business community Hong Kong is generally regarded as China's premier financial centre.
This position has probably strengthened as economic ties with the mainland have expanded since the signing of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), and has been given a further boost by the listing of state-backed enterprises in Hong Kong and the significant flows of foreign investment handled by local banks.
"Many mainland corporations opt to invest in Hong Kong because of its proximity and financial expertise, while a lot of the international players are here to use it as the gateway to China," says Jimmy Chung, president of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) Hong Kong. "This is a major advantage and explains why Hong Kong has been able to maintain its financial status for so long."
"The status of an internal auditor is much higher than it might have been ten years ago"
While this scenario continues, there will not only be business opportunities, but also a steady need for accountants, lawyers and bankers who can provide expert professional advice. Clearly, this will lead to more work and, therefore, more job openings.
Since the mainland's accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), an increasing number of overseas companies have pushed ahead with investment plans. In many cases, they prefer to appoint accountants from Hong Kong, recognising as a major benefit their experience, communication skills, and exposure to international accounting standards and business practices.
"Although more accountancy graduates are interested in working in the mainland after training abroad, there is an overall shortage of talent and Hong Kong accountants still have a significant role to play," Mr Chung explains.
Increasingly, this will mean understanding the details of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act which passed into law in the US in 2002. It included sweeping provisions to tighten controls, protect investors and encourage employees to report wrong practices. One of the aims was to restore trust in the accounting profession after various financial scandals, which had worldwide repercussions. As a result, auditors and accountants have learned to monitor a company's internal controls closer than ever and to implement better risk management and corporate governance measures. "The status of an internal auditor is much higher than it might have been ten years ago," Mr Chung notes.
Although local universities provide a steady flow of accountancy graduates each year, there is currently a shortage of qualified professionals with at least three years' experience and the ability to manage assignments. The smaller firms which have fewer resources to train fresh graduates are therefore finding that they have to offer higher salaries to attract suitable candidates.
"In general, accounting firms such as the Big Four offer full-scale training programmes," Mr Chung says.
He notes that some employers in the finance and banking sector are now offering more attractive remuneration packages and a good work environment for qualified accountants. What they particularly look for are skills in financial reporting, business analysis and planning, and corporate governance. It is an advantage if applicants possess a good command of English, Cantonese and Putonghua.
ACCA Hong Kong and Michael Page International conducted a joint survey on salary trends and skills in 2005. This revealed that 28 per cent of employers had recruited extra accounting and finance professionals in 2005, and an aggregate of 35 per cent expect to recruit during this year.
Other surveys have found that small firms pay fresh graduates starting salaries of approximately HK$9,000 a month, while the bigger firms usually offer around HK$10,000 plus bonus and overtime payments. Mr Chung believes that average salaries for accountants will see an upward adjustment of around three per cent in 2007.
- Strong demand for accountants as more China enterprises are interested in listing in Hong Kong
- Foreign investors respect the skills offered by accountancy firms in Hong Kong
- More trained auditors and accountants are needed to monitor companies' financial controls and internal operations
- Language skills are necessary for those who want to advance
- Remuneration packages are improving as a reflection of market demand