The mood at two of Hong Kong’s top institutions, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), is a study in contrast.
The atmosphere at ICAC is grim even as the anti-graft body marks its 40th anniversary this year. The reason for the lack of joy: the recent scandal surrounding the conduct of its former chief Timothy Tong Hin-ming.
But over at the SFC — the local securities markets watchdog — it is all pride as employees rejoice in the knowledge that their agency has done a very decent job in ensuring market order and a fair playing field.
Flip a few pages in the SFC annual report, and the positive energy of its people comes through clearly. In fact, the document is more like a university marketing brochure that shows off how much fun could be had on the campus.
Going the extra mile, the regulator has roped in alumni such as Mark Dickens, now chief executive of the Financial Reporting Council, and even some independent non-executive directors to make a point about working in the regulatory body.
The Australian-born Dickens described how he managed to extend a two-and-a-half year contract to a 14-year career at the SFC because the work was “simply too fascinating”.
“At the SFC you never run out of interesting things to do. I relished the great variety of the work and the intellectual challenges. At the time I joined, the SFC was starting with virtually a blank piece of paper, and we had to make a lot of changes over the years to get the market up to an international standard,” he said.
The same message was reinforced in an accompanying article: “Never a dull moment”.
“The rules and regulations we enforce have a significant impact on society as a whole, not just on the financial industry. Therefore we constantly ask ourselves how to improve: What can be done better? How can we help people understand what we do? What is the purpose of regulation? In this respect, the SFC is ideal for those who relish an intellectual challenge and are not afraid of hard work.”
The document later goes on to give career-doctor type of advice to fresh graduates.
On page 32, it says: “Sometimes people are caught in a dilemma when making a career choice: to pursue their dream job or to settle for second best. But this is not a dilemma for us. When we first came to work at the SFC we had not planned to stay for more than a few years, but that’s not how things turned out. We stayed because the work has been incredibly fascinating, interesting, and thoroughly enjoyable. A few of us have been at the SFC since its inception 25 years ago.”
Even the SFC’s non-executive directors made a point, explaining how their roles are different from those of the executives who work at profit-making companies. They point out that an important part of their job is to ensure that the SFC’s powers and remedial actions are administered in a fair, equitable and timely manner, and that they feel honored to be entrusted with such duties.
The SFC’s commitment has been evident in many cases, including its move last year on former Executive Council member Barry Cheung Chun-yuen’s Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange (HKMEx). The agency had investigated the financial irregularities that led to HKMEx’s collapse.
As it kept itself busy, the SFC has seen its workforce rise to 753 as of end-March, an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. The regulator said it has set up a dedicated corporate regulation team to promote improved corporate behavior and more meaningful corporate disclosures, encourage better dialogue between companies and their shareholders, and identify potential misconduct.
These initiatives, however, led to the agency’s annual deficit balloon to HK$139 million in the last financial year, a fact which has been highlighted by the financial media this week.
For those worrying too much about the deficit, they should bear in mind that the SFC has concrete results to show in terms of market discipline initiatives. If the agency continues its hard work, it can in fact adapt for itself the famous ICAC slogan.
“Hong Kong, Our Advantage is the SFC”. Doesn’ sound bad at all!
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