Will Asian financial centers overtake Wall Street?
Hong Kong is rising fast thanks to the growth of China. It passed New York as the biggest issuer of initial public offerings in 2006.
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In 2006, it surpassed Wall Street in initial public offerings (IPOs).
And one morning last June, Hong Kong's Financial Services Secretary K.C. Chan made a rare trip to Moscow. Addressing an audience of Russian government officials and businessmen, he made a blunt pitch.
"Hong Kong is your best partner in reaching out to the international market," he insisted. "Hong Kong possesses strong credentials to provide quality services."
That Mr. Chan believes he can lure Russian investors away from London or New York is an indication of how Wall Street's Asian rivals have been gaining ground for some time now. As the current credit crisis brings America's and Britain's most storied financial institutions to their knees, some analysts see Asia poised to grab the influence that Wall Street is losing.
"The crisis has clearly undermined a lot of global confidence in the US as a financial center and people will begin looking elsewhere," predicts Zachary Karabell, a financial analyst and an associate fellow of the Asia Society in New York. "There has been a significant shift in mentality at the end of a period when there has already been a shift in the locus of capital and economic activity" toward Asia, he adds.
That view is not universally shared. Markets of the size and sophistication that New York and London can boast "build up over time and there is a huge network and agglomeration effect," says Edwin Truman, a former assistant US Treasury secretary.
New signs of Asia's burgeoning role in international finance came in the past two weeks, when the Japanese bank Nomura snapped up the Asian and European operations of Lehman Brothers, which went bankrupt last month. And when Hong Kong overtook New York for the first time in the value of IPOs launched, that was evidence of a shift.
US financiers have been complaining for several years that Wall Street's dominance has been eroded by regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley antifraud legislation that complicates listing on the New York stock exchanges. And most international derivatives trading is now done in London.
But the sort of business that the current crisis has destroyed on Wall Street will not necessarily move to Asia, nor to any other financial center.
Wall Street's appetite for credit risk – which fueled the freewheeling boom years until it brought the whole edifice of credit down – will not travel, says Brad Setser, an economics fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Asia won't become Wall Street because it won't have the same risk-taking culture. That Wall Street culture will disappear and the ecosystem of risk-taking, highly leveraged institutions that populated Wall Street will not migrate."