Laura Cha has a rare claim to fame: she is the only person to have worked at a top level in the securities regulators of both Hong Kong and China.
She started out at the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) in 1991, when the regulator was still trying to rebuild Hong Kong’s market after the 1987 crash.
“Hong Kong was basically a local domestic stock market,” she says.
She was there for the breakthrough moment of Chinese state-owned enterprises arriving on the Hong Kong market, bringing international attention and greater diversification. This was the birth of the H-share market.
“It’s not just that we attracted all these listings,” she says, “it was two things together – international interest and raised standards – that have attracted confidence in our market consistently.”
Cha was involved in building the foundations of Hong Kong as an international market: IPO processes for state-owned companies, interaction with the People’s Bank of China and devising structures “in the absence of company law or security law in China.”
The SFC, then as now, faces a unique challenge. Most of the incoming listings are from parents outside the regulator’s jurisdiction, because they are on the mainland. So the SFC created mandatory provisions for the articles of association of listed companies, meaning state-owned enterprises had to meet governance requirements beyond their company law.
“We could not have foreseen that Chinese companies would account for more than 60% of our listed companies’ combined market cap and that half of our daily turnover would be in China-related stocks,” she says.
In 2000, she gave notice that she would leave the SFC – “10 years under the spotlight making decisions where the next day I didn’t know what the press would write” – and was surprised to get a call join the China Securities Regulatory Commission.
She moved to Beijing in March 2001 and held the role for three years.
How were her working days different? “Not that different except that in Hong Kong people work longer hours.”
These were transformative times in China and she focused her efforts on making a push for independent non-executive directors on boards. She made sponsors go through an exam (not many passed) and set about developing training, as she had with the SFC.
Later she entered politics and is now chairman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, as well as chairing the corporate social responsibility committees and serving on the board of both HSBC and Unilever.
She is very much an ambassador for Hong Kong.
“We want to be at the forefront by diversifying our product base, attracting institutions and making Hong Kong as friendly as it has always been,” she says.