Bonding with Hong Kong: James Griffiths

IFR Asia - 20th Anniversary Special Issue 2017
6 min read

We asked some former colleagues for memories of their time at IFR Asia. Happily, they haven’t forgotten how to tell a good story

After a bad market call derailed an early career in bond sales and trading, I had ended up at IFR magazine in London in 1998 covering MTNs and commercial paper. Yes, it sounds as boring as it was, but I was grateful to IFR for the opportunity to get back on my feet.

“Marlboro draws on new MTN programme” was my best headline in two years. Enough said.

So when I heard “how do you fancy being our Asia bond reporter for a couple of years?” I was practically on the next plane to Hong Kong. That was in 1999. It’s now 2017 and I am still in Hong Kong, though I no longer work as a journalist. After naming Citigroup best bond house for several years running they finally relented and gave me a PR job. But as I look back on that period from 1999-2005 with IFR Asia, great memories come flooding back of colleagues, contacts and plenty of stories – both printable and not.

The Asian international bond market was a different beast back in 1999. Issuance topped US$10bn in 1998 – a couple of good days now – and high yield was still making a tentative comeback after the Asian financial crisis. Bankers were different beasts too – long liquid lunches and loose lips were the order of the day, before the financial crisis led to tighter tongues and lattes over lagers.

So armed with a decent expense budget and a contact list that consisted of two names I got to work. One thing that was clear was the IFR Asia name opened doors, despite being only two years old.

I developed a good mix of contacts across capital markets, syndicate and a few decent issuers who were always keen to see their deal portrayed in a positive light – or couldn’t turn down lunch at the Chinnery. Investors were slowly being drawn to Asia bonds, too, and a few were a fertile ground for scoops as they were usually shown deals before anything was announced publicly. Bankers like to still think that they open markets but it’s really investors that do that.

The first few months were tough, though. Up against more established Asian journalists at decent rival brands, I was hammered. It was a fast market where scoops made your name – with just 20-30 deals a year, bankers left out of the loop depended on quick reporting to ambulance chase new deals and thus prove their existence. You lived and died by breaking deals, not analysis – that came in the weekly magazine where you could rip a deal apart but, for the emerging, it was a battle for bond scoops. It wasn’t just the professional publishers, either – Bloomberg and Reuters were also waking up to Asian bonds, so there were plenty of contenders.

I remember many a nervy night every Friday clicking on to check I hadn’t been scooped. It happened all too often then, but after a few months I started hitting back. I like to think it was down to me… but I know in reality it was that expense budget and the fact that IFR Asia had become a key magazine where they wanted to see their deal covered.

The personalities in the market were what made the job entertaining (you can read more about them in John Lefevre’s Straight to Hell) and here I will be good to my former sources, but we had a lot of fun and it was fascinating to be part of the birth of basically a new asset class.

I used to get excited over a US$500m floater from KDB – now that barely registers amid the billion-dollar blockbusters from the new kids on the block like Tencent and Alibaba. Issuance regularly tops US$100bn a year with hundreds of deals – in 1999 we struggled by with 40-odd deals and US$10bn.

My favourite story? Again it was down to luck, like most were. On the way to the ADB in May 2001 in Hawaii and I was at Narita airport just weeks after the infamous mid-air collision over Hainan Island between a US and a Chinese military aircraft. China was planning a return to the international bond markets – a prized mandate – and I had a front row seat as the Europeans pitched a debut euro in one corner of the lounge with the US banks in the other pitching a dollar Global amid this backdrop of tension with the US. It was like watching Rocky in suits as bankers openly pitched against each other.

As I look back I remember that day and many others with great fondness and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate IFR Asia on a happy 20th anniversary. Oh, and can you give us the Best Bank award again?

James Griffiths was a bond reporter and editor in Hong Kong with IFR Asia from 1999-2005.

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