HKEX boss Li stepping down early

Top News | Kevin Xu 30 Sep 2020

Kevin Xu

Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing said yesterday that Charles Li Xiaojia will leave the bourse by the end of this year, adding further intrigue to the chief executive's departure, which had been slated for next October.

Li took the market by surprise again as he will retire on December 31 and take up the role of senior adviser for six months.

The earlier-than-planned exit was Li's wish, said the exchange.

Li, 59, previously said he would continue to lead the exchange until his contract expires next October. He might leave earlier if a replacement was found, said a filing in May.

But HKEX only named chief operating officer Calvin Tai Chi-kin as interim chief executive to fill the gap.

As set out in the May announcement, a selection committee led by chairwoman Laura Cha Shih May-lung, with directors Apurv Bagri, Benjamin Hung and Rafael Gil-Tienda, has been formed to conduct a formal search process for a new chief executive. "Considerable progress has been made" in the search for Li's successor, HKEX said, without revealing further details.

Speculation arose over who will be the next HKEX boss.

There are rumors that Liu Che-Ning, HSBC's co-head of Asia Pacific global banking, and Laurence Li Lu-jen, chairman of the Financial Services Development Council, are two "dark horses" for the position.

Market watchers have also proposed several reasons behind the chief executive's latest move. Some said Li has not been on good terms with Cha, while others have speculated that the ambitious chief executive has set his sights on Hong Kong's highest office.

Last week, a local media website stated that Li was to take up a government job after his departure from HKEX.

Li has previously sidestepped questions about whether he was planning a run for the post of Hong Kong chief executive, asking reporters if he had a heart big enough for the role.

Some also said Li stepped down due to a bribery case involving a former HKEX manager.

Eugene Yeoh Kim-loong, a former joint head of the bourse's initial public offering vetting team, was charged with bribery linked to IPO applications by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Many believe that, like Li, his successor has to have good mainland connections.

Li is well remembered for enhancing the link between the mainland and Hong Kong markets with Stock Connect and Bond Connect.

He pushed through major reforms in the listing system to introduce companies with weighted voting rights, which has brought in tech giants like Xiaomi, Meituan Dianping and Alibaba, as well as biotech firms still in the research stage.

The failed bid to take over the London Stock Exchange last year stands as a misstep during Li's tenure, though Cha said Li's quitting is not related in any way to that.

The Beijing-born former investment banker joined HKEX in 2010.

In an interview with Cha for the chief executive position a decade ago, Cha asked Li why he thought he would be competent for the job. Li told Cha that he was not competent as he couldn't speak Cantonese, had no experience of managing a company and knew little about information technology. But Cha appreciated Li's being frank and honest about his shortcomings.

Li was chairman of JPMorgan China before he moved to the HKEX. Before that, Li was president of Merrill Lynch China.

Before joining Merrill Lynch in 1994, Li practiced law in New York with Davis Polk & Wardwell and Brown & Wood.

Before moving to the US for his studies, Li had worked as an offshore oil worker in the North China Sea, and as a newspaper editor-reporter for China Daily from 1984 to 1986.

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