Forget CLSA’s Hong Kong forum – Jefferies’ is the one to watch

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CLSA’s annual conference was one of Hong Kong’s great investor events, but its mantle is passing to Jefferies, whose inaugural Asia Forum will be held at the Hyatt – CLSA’s old stamping ground.

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When you have your foot on the neck of your enemy, keep pressing.

The adage sprang to mind when a frothy press release pinged into Euromoney’s inbox. It was from CLSA, a once proudly independent Hong Kong brokerage now run by China’s Citic Securities, which has shed staff at an alarming rate during the past year.

Clearly in fighting mode, CLSA seemed keen to put its annus horribilis, during which it lost long-time CEO Jonathan Slone, chairman Tang Zhenyi and star analyst Chris Wood, in the past.

It promised a “revamp” of its annual September investor forum, to be overseen by Kai Kaufmann, a former head of client strategy at Deutsche Bank, who braved the choppy waters to join CLSA in October.

But observers were left thinking: revamp, what revamp? CLSA, bought in 2013 for $1.3 billion by state-run Citic, promised to put “more than 350” Asia-Pacific corporates in front of delegates – but it has delivered that and more since the 1990s.

Where was mention of the reason many attend the four-day soiree? They come to hear Elton John or Duran Duran sing, and Bill Clinton or George Clooney grab them with gravitas. There was no mention of this year’s star turn. Perhaps there isn’t one.

Venue

What did stand out was the venue. The Rosewood in Kowloon is a perfectly nice five-star hotel. It offers a cracking view of Hong Kong’s daily light show – temporarily disabled while coronavirus rages – and is a stone’s throw from a bronze memorial of karate-legend Bruce Lee. But why is it not held at the Grand Hyatt, as it is every year?

Aye, and there’s the rub. CLSA wanted the Hyatt, sources say, but alas Jefferies had nabbed it.

The New York-based investment bank, which is expanding apace across Asia, has hired more than 60 ex-CLSA bankers and analysts during the past year, including Slone and Wood. The latter is slated to speak on the first morning of the inaugural Jefferies Asia Forum, on September 14.

There are so many parallels at work. You have one investment bank run by creative types great at producing splashy research that grab the attention of CEOs and fund mangers in the ascendance, while the other struggles for meaning and identity.

Jefferies seems almost to be working directly from CLSA’s well-thumbed playbook, promising 1,600 delegates “original content, comprehensive corporate access and actionable investment insights”, across roundtables and 2,000 private meetings.

And can it be a total surprise that Jefferies nabbed the prime September slot at the Hyatt, displacing CLSA?

In July, the US investment bank named its new head of Asia marketing and events as Karming Lai, who filled the same role at CLSA for more than 20 years.

“Karming has a great relationship with the Hyatt,” says a banker aware of the situation. “CLSA will now host an event a week before its rival, who will get to see its full invitation list. For anyone asking if Jefferies is the new CLSA, the answer is ‘yes’.”