Inside the shady world of Asian finance; “Nothing Gained” is a thriller that paints an intriguing, if unsettling, portrait of the world of investment banking

2013-07-19 17:11

Inside the shady world of Asian finance

By Kim Young-jin

After the 2008 financial crisis, plenty of ink was spilt to explain why stock markets plunged and governments bailed out large financial institutions. For those unversed in the jargon of international finance, it was not an easy event to understand. The evictions, foreclosures and unemployment that followed in some parts of the world, of course, were a gut-punch for millions. But factors such as sub-prime mortgages and high risk, complex financial products didn’t exactly make for riveting reading. Phillip Y. Kim, a first-time novelist with a long history in the banking industry, is out to change that. His new book, “Nothing Gained,” is a thriller that paints an intriguing, if unsettling, portrait of the world of investment banking. Having worked for 25 years at such firms as Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley, the Korean-American is well placed to shed light on some of the more colorful, if unsavory, aspects of the industry. Rife with details about the high-rolling lifestyles of the nouveau riche, and with a plot filled with intrigue, Kim is able to expose readers to the complicated world of banking in Asia and the pitfalls of unfettered greed. “The pursuit of wealth inevitably attracts unique and charismatic personalities, and often leads to incredible circumstances,” Kim said in an email interview. “I wanted to tell an entertaining story that was based on some of the events I witnessed or heard about over the years. The plot stems from the drowning death of Jason Donahue, a wealthy expat banker in Hong Kong, which sends tremors through the corporate elite. Cheryl, his wife, is forced to deal with his web of unethical business dealings, including the matter of $20 million unaccounted for.  To protect her family, Cheryl, a Korean-American, engages with a motley crue of shady characters, and traverses the globe to find the one person that can help her. He is aided by Todd Leahy, Jason’s chief of staff. We asked Kim ­ who has spent much of his career in Asia ― about the transition from banker to novelist, Asia’s “one percent,” and the role of Asian economies in global finance.Q. After 25 years in banking, why did you make the leap into writing?

A. Creative writing has seemed to have always been in my blood. After college, I chose banking as a career over writing because I thought it would give me a better chance to earn a decent living. However, as I gained more flexibility in my work schedule over the past few years, the urge to chronicle some of my experiences became much more insistent.

Three years ago, a plot idea for a novel came to me. I quickly realized that I needed to plunge in and attempt to write it before I got too old, and while I still had the energy and drive. It has been an interesting transition ― writing is very different from banking. Creative writing is right-brain oriented, not left-brain.

Q. ‘Nothing Gained’ is full of intriguing characters, some of whom are less than savory. Would you say they accurately reflect the nature of people in this industry?

A. I tried to make the characters in the book very realistic. I don’t think that anyone is a caricature or an exaggeration of the types of people that investment bankers come across in their lives. There are always going to be senior bankers such as Jason Donahue who let greed get the better of them. Similarly, there are really decent, hardworking people in the business such as Todd Leahy. And as for the bad guys, Asia abounds with its share of nasty, arrogant people ―­ both Asians and Westerners ― who will stop at nothing to get their way or for whom “ethics” is a four-letter word.

Q. What are some of the unique characteristics of the rich in Asia, and how do they differ from other parts of the world?

A. Asia is a large and diverse continent, so it’s hard to generalize across the region. However, many Asian cultures emphasize a high degree of social decorum. Causing a person to directly lose face is a taboo. A consequence of this politeness is a lack of candor. It can sometimes be very difficult to ascertain a counterparty’s true motives in doing a deal, but it is very important to do so, and the sooner the better. Appearances alone can be deceiving.

Q. Some of the characters appear to seamlessly traverse cultures. But Cheryl, who like you is Korean-American, feels as if she is a “third-culture” person. Is that sensation you have had?

A. Engaging in an international life can be both thrilling and disconcerting. In the good times, one feels a deeply satisfying connection to the rest of the world. However, when things go wrong, living in a third culture can be very alienating. As Cheryl’s life and perception of it gets turned upside down, part of what she has to deal with psychologically is her status as an outsider. I made her a Korean-American because I wanted to stay close to her emotionally as she goes through her trials and challenges.

Q. Nothing Gain takes a look at the global financial crisis from an Asian perspective. What are your thoughts on Asia’s role during that time; and moving forward?

A. The origins of the 2008 crisis had little to do with Asia. The problems were centered in the United States, and to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom. In fact, Asian countries (notably China) helped to save the global economy from ruin by providing capital and liquidity into the system when the Western banks faced collapse. As you may recall, the Korea Development Bank gave serious consideration to bailing out Lehman Brothers. Even though that deal did not happen (fortunately for KDB), Asian money helped keep the world on its feet.

However, Asia should be far from complacent. The region has had its share of banking crises ­― the IMF crisis in 1997, the Korean credit card crisis in 2002 etc. And there will certainly be others. The Chinese banking system is under heavy scrutiny these days, and it remains to be seen whether questionable asset quality again poses major systemic risks to the international economy.

Q. Do you plan to stay in both banking and writing? What does writing do for you?

A. For as long as is possible, I would like to be able to straddle both worlds. Banking allows me to keep in touch with businesses and try to help clients with their deals. However, I also want to write, mainly because I am compelled to do so. I would love to be able to continue to devote a lot of time to writing stories that entertain and enlighten people. There is so much to talk about in Asia, a region where rapid wealth creation is changing billions of lives on many different levels ― politically, socially and individually.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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