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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Looking for Bilingual Bankers

LONDON -- Chinese demand has already fueled booms in markets from copper to shipping, but the rise of the world's fastest growing economy is also driving up prices for another hot commodity: bilingual bankers.

Banks are struggling to find enough candidates with fluent Mandarin and English to accommodate their expansion plans in China, which is poised to leapfrog Hong Kong as Asia's biggest center for initial public offerings.

Securing banking talent in China has been a problem for years, but the matter is more pressing than ever with the country starting to spend its $1.33 trillion of foreign currency reserves on overseas deals.

Hedge funds and private equity firms, which are starting to source deals in China, are also poaching bankers from Wall Street , making the hunt for talent even tougher.

After China's decades of isolation from global trade, English is not widely spoken, and few non-Chinese master the notoriously difficult language.

"There are people who understand the product and people who understand the people, but a dearth of those who understand both," said Adrian Ezra, chief executive of international financial recruitment firm Execuzen.

"Demand outstrips supply 10-to-1," he said. "If you are a senior or even a junior Chinese specialist, you can practically write your own ticket."

An expected wave of foreign currency-funded overseas takeovers and a proposed end to a ban on foreign acquisitions of Chinese brokerages have helped spark hiring sprees by banks such as Citigroup.

One Chinese investment banking chairman said his European firm had more than tripled local hires, to about 20 a year.

Other emerging markets are also presenting troubles for banks in search of deal makers, but China poses a unique challenge.

"It is easier to move Russians back to Russia or Indians back to India. The Middle Easterners are happy to move to Dubai. But you cannot find the Chinese," Ezra said.

Many Chinese immigrants are Cantonese speakers and unfamiliar with China's official language of Mandarin. Outside of Shanghai and Beijing, English speakers are scarce, which boutique bank First Line Capital found when it opened earlier this month in the city of Chongqing.

"The language issue is a very sore point," First Line founder Simon Erblich said. "Just ordering room service here is a problem."

Another challenge in wooing employees to mainland China is lifestyle, as many are deterred by pollution, cultural divides, high taxes and strict control over politics and media.

"Even for Hong Kong Chinese, there are differences," said one bilingual employee at a top bank in Beijing. "Mainland China is a much more traditional society."