Business

Hong Kong brokers' long lunch under threat

Hong Kong trading floor
Image caption There are few sandwich crumbs on the desks of Hong Kong traders, who currently enjoy a two-hour lunch break

Peter Lai, a 30-year veteran of Hong Kong's financial industry, is distraught at the suggestion he might soon have to dine at his desk.

Mr Lai, a director at DBS Vickers Securities, much prefers a nearby restaurant. He often takes clients out for lunch at the Four Seasons or the members-only Bankers Club during the two-hour trading break on the Hong Kong stock exchange.

"I couldn't stomach a cold sandwich at my desk," he told the BBC by telephone.

"Even once a week would be too much."

Hong Kong's local stock brokers are staunch defenders of their two-hour lunch break, and many, like Mr Lai, are resisting moves to cut it short.

But the stock exchange wants to extend its trading hours to compete with other major international bourses.

Leisurely lunch

Hong Kong is an unlikely bastion of the long, leisurely lunch.

The free-wheeling former British territory buzzes with activity dawn to dusk, and, its 50-hour average work week is among the longest in the world.

But the city's stock exchange, which ranks in the world's top 10, only trades for four hours a day.

London, Frankfurt and Paris are open for more than eight hours, while New York is open for six and a half hours.

Lunchtime trading breaks are also rare outside Asia. In London, there hasn't been a lunchtime break since 1950.

The exchange currently runs in two sessions, 1000-1230, and 1430-1600.

It is proposing opening 30 minutes earlier and shortening the lunch-time trading recess to 1200-1300 or 1200-1330.

Not only will that bring it closer in line with other major stock exchanges, it will also allow Hong Kong's trading hours to better coincide with Shanghai's.

A significant number of companies are listed on both exchanges so this would allow traders to react to news quicker.

It is the second time in 10 years the exchange has tried to extend trading hours. In 2003, the exchange abandoned plans to eliminate the lunch break after opposition from the local brokerage community.

Hong Kong's brokers have until Friday, 29 October to respond to the proposals as contained in a consultation paper.

Loss of business?

Image caption A quick sandwich while working is not for everyone

Hong Kong-based shareholder activist David Webb argues the long lunch break means Hong Kong loses trading business just as European investors start their working day.

He adds that much broking now takes place online and computer don't need to shut down for lunch.

"As we stroll around Hong Kong during the lunch hour, we find that banks, shops, estate agents and travel agents are still open... and their staff manage to rotate their lunch hours to achieve this," he says.

"Yet somehow, many stock brokers have until now seemed incapable of arranging their affairs to stay during lunch hours."

However, of almost 500 responses to an online poll on the website that he runs, the appropriately-named Webb-site, the majority said the lunch-hour should be kept, albeit reduced to one hour.

More work?

Ben Kwong, chief operating officer at KGI Asia, says he supports the proposed changes although understands why others are resisting.

He says he often makes use of the lunch break to make presentations, attend company road shows as well as meet clients.

Longer hours may mean more work for back-office staff and some restaurants fear a loss of trade, he adds.

"I think foreign brokers must find the debate a little bit odd," says Mr Kwong.

"But the local brokerage community still accounts for a respectable amount of turnover so the exchange must take their views into account."

Compromise?

Mr Lai concedes that it is important for Hong Kong to align itself more closely with mainland China.

He thinks a one and a half hour lunch break is an acceptable compromise that the local brokerage community is likely to accept.

"I know some people think we're deluded. But we work hard," says Mr Lai, who starts his working day before 8am and finishes after 6pm.

"Us local Hong Kong Chinese brokers want to eat a hot meal in a comfortable place, not eat at our desks."

But they could find themselves fighting a losing battle if trends in the UK are any guide.

A recent survey found that the average British worker now allots just 16 minutes for their midday break, with just 3% of the 5,000 people polled taking a full lunch hour as the financial crisis has heightened fears of job losses.

Perhaps Hong Kong's brokers should cherish their leisurely lunch before it disappears altogether.

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