Monday, 23 March 2009

Philippines offers haven for crisis-hit executives

Many unemployed expats are shunning a return home for a relaxed and cheap Asian lifestyle
Simon Parry
Sunday Morning Post
Hong Kong, 22 March 2009

A black joke doing the rounds in Hong Kong's financial circles as the global economic crisis casts an ever-longer shadow goes like this: Q: "What's the definition of an optimist?" A: "A banker who has five shirts ironed on a Sunday."

It is a joke that Barry Emmerton--who lost his HK$120,000-a-month job as an interest rates derivatives specialist with its five-month, end-of-year bonus--can afford to smile at, even though the question of how many shirts he should iron is already an irrelevance.

Today, instead of waking up to the prospect of another nerve-shredding week in Hong Kong's money markets, the 34-year-old Briton is instead listening to the sound of the sea in a tropical beach house in the Philippines with his wife, Jo, and four-year-old daughter, Chloe.

On Wednesday, he handed over the keys to his HK$42,000-a-month apartment in Stanley, put most of his furniture and belongings into storage and, with just three small suitcases, a suit bag and a laptop computer, set out with his family for the adventure of a lifetime.

Mr Emmerton is one of a growing number of expatriates who have lost well-paid jobs in Hong Kong's financial sector and, rather than head home, put their worldly possessions in storage and head off to do something they would never otherwise have the opportunity to do.

Two major Hong Kong relocation companies--Crown and Relocasia--told the Sunday Morning Post that they had seen dramatic rises in calls and orders for storage facilities that far outstrip calls and orders from expatriates intent on shipping their things back home.

For Mr Emmerton, putting his goods in storage for HK$1,500 a month means he can swap executive job hunting for life in a thatched bamboo beach home in Bohol in the Philippines, where he calculates that just living off the rental income from his two London properties, his family can live indefinitely without touching their savings.

The Emmertons arrived on Thursday at the Alumbung resort 800km south of Manila, where a two-storey beach home will cost them HK$8,000 a month. "We'll look around and get something for around half the price after the first month, I reckon," says Mr Emmerton, who has given his family a budget of HK$10,000 a month.

It is a remarkable turnaround for Mr Emmerton, who admits he felt "panic and terror" when he first found himself jobless in December and, after a Christmas break in Britain, lined up two interviews upon his return which were both cancelled at short notice as the economic crisis deepened.

Soon after, a friend suggested he should take a six-month career break, planting an idea that slowly grew into a plan. "He told me 'Why don't you just leave your apartment before Chloe is old enough for school? Do it now, because you won't be able to do it for another 10 years'," Mr Emmerton says.

Once the decision was made, Mr Emmerton's anxieties lifted. "Before, there was the uncertainty--the worry over the job interviews, the contract on this apartment," he said two days before flying out to the Philippines. "But since we handed in our notice and booked our flights, I haven't been able to stop smiling about it."

After considering Vietnam and Thailand, the Emmertons opted for Bohol Island because it has WiFi and daily flight connections to Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney. That means Mr Emmerton can be at a job interview, if one comes up, in a matter of hours.

"Some people are a bit taken aback when I tell them what we're doing because it's not the sort of thing you immediately think of at our age," he says. "You think, 'I'm 34, I've got a family, I should be moving on with my career, my potential is increasing and I should be making the most of it'.

"But everyone I know is looking over their shoulder at the moment. It's an insecure world. There are jobs coming up in London but there are 300 people fighting for each one. It's pretty miserable there. While we are still in Asia, I can look out for work in Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney, and live this great lifestyle in the meantime. We can live for a fraction of the cost and live on a tropical island by the beach and enjoy ourselves for six months and worry about everything else later.

"Since I left school at 18, I have always worked. For 16 years, I've never had any time away from work apart from two weeks for the summer holidays. Most people do a gap year at university or go travelling. I never did that. Now I can do this before Chloe goes to school. It's quite liberating."

Already, Mr Emmerton says, the experience of losing his job has broadened his horizons. "The last three months have just been fantastic," he says. "People say 'Are you getting bored?' But I've got a four-year-old daughter so there's always something to do. I know my daughter so much better now, already, than when I was working."

It is a lifestyle option that a growing number of expatriates who have fallen victim to the global slump are considering. Sherry Liu, general manager for Crown's Hong Kong relocations division, said there had been a "dramatic" increase in inquiries about storage from expatriates in the past quarter.

"I think people realise there are not necessarily better opportunities back home at the moment and no safe harbours anywhere. That's why there's a tendency to see if they can sit it out in Asia for a bit or at least wait until the school semester is over for their children. Families are considering all these things and hoping there will be a turn-around which will allow them to stay in Asia."

Ben Tyrrell, director of Relocasia, which put Mr Emmerton's household goods into storage, said there had been an "absolutely massive increase" in the number of people taking the storage option and heading out on career breaks.

"We are getting daily phone calls from people doing the same thing. When the downturn first started, we were moving a lot of panicked people back to their parents' homes overseas. In November and December, there was a definite switch.

"People started thinking 'Hang on, let's look at putting our things in storage. It's affordable, it keeps our options open and we can use the money we would be spending on rent to go and enjoy our lives'." Recent clients who put their goods in storage included an Airbus executive who had gone off to ride a motorcycle across Nepal and settle in Kathmandu, and a former Macau casino executive who had left to teach English in Cambodia.

The current trend was in stark contrast to the exodus of expatriates that followed the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, he says.

"During Sars, people thought the world was coming to an end," he says. "They just wanted to get everything out and get out of town as fast as they could.

"I think they all start off with the optimism that they can come back to Hong Kong at the end of it. What will be interesting will be to see their impressions at the end of the six months compared to their impressions at the beginning of the six months.

"I would wager fairly highly that the experience these people have will influence the type of work they want to do and the type of lifestyle they want to lead.

"It may make them question how much they really need to live on. They will ask themselves 'Do I need to live in an HK$80,000-a-month apartment or could I live in a HK$20,000 apartment and spend more time with my family and not work so much?' I think people will ask some really fundamental questions of themselves."

Matthew Gollop, group managing director of executive search recruitment business Connected Group, says that for some people, there was little downside in taking a career break. "In the worst case scenario, you'll get a job offer two weeks after you leave," he says. "In the best case scenario, you'll be sitting on a beach while everyone else is scrambling around looking for work."

Mr Gollop believes expatriates in Hong Kong are more likely to take a career break than former colleagues back home. "There are locations like Thailand and the Philippines you can go to which are very close," he says.

"It's very difficult if you're somewhere like the UK. In Asia, people are a bit more broad-minded because they travel around the region more."

Spending time on a beach rather than hunting for work might actually do candidates good, Mr Gollop insists. "There were a lot of good candidates at the end of the last downturn in Asia who had a career break on their CV and it was easy to explain. If you were here, you understood how difficult it was.

"In fact, some people did more damage to their CVs by taking themselves off in a different career direction or taking too big a salary cut. If you can afford to wait for the right thing to come around, I think it's a good move, certainly over the next six months. So long as you're available to consider opportunities--and with the internet it's easy to keep in touch--you can go somewhere like the Philippines and be back within a day if you need to be."

It is one of many considerations Mr Emmerton mulled over carefully before deciding on his Philippines getaway. "I concluded that no one is going to look at your CV in this day and age and question it," he says. "Why stay in Hong Kong going through all your savings when you can do something like this instead?"

As he prepared for his last night with his family in their Stanley apartment, Mr Emmerton already knew how a typical day might play out in the lazy months ahead.

"I'll have breakfast," he said. "Then I'll run a couple of miles up and down the beach, sit down in the garden for a couple of hours and play with Chloe, go to lunch, go fishing, come home for some dinner, put Chloe to bed--then sit outside with a cold beer and listen to the sound of the sea and the chirruping of the insects."


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