'You have to run very fast just to stand still'

J.P. Morgan's head of investments for South-east Asia Christophe Aba says he works hard to do well in his job and to be a good father to his two daughters.
J.P. Morgan's head of investments for South-east Asia Christophe Aba says he works hard to do well in his job and to be a good father to his two daughters.ST PHOTO: LIM YONG TECK

J.P. Morgan's Christophe Aba talks about the fast-moving, exciting financial industry

By 7.15am every day, Mr Christophe Aba is already at his J.P. Morgan office, ready to start his long, busy day as the bank's recently appointed South-east Asia investments head.

"The first thing I do is to read as much as I can when there's no one around to interrupt me.

"This is important for me to catch up with what happened in the United States overnight, to keep up with the market, and figure out what I think of the world.

"All that before my hours officially start at 8.30am with our daily morning meeting where we get briefings and reports from across the region," Mr Aba told The Straits Times in a recent interview.

He usually leaves the office some time after 7pm, after spending close to 12 hours at work.

But the 38-year-old French citizen expects no less from the fast and furious ways of the financial industry, a business "where you have to run very fast just to stand still", as he summed up with a hint of satisfaction.

His hunger for challenge will be a great fit for his new role in Singapore after almost 11 years at J.P. Morgan, where he has risen from the ranks of a temporary hire in Switzerland in 2002 to an investment team leader in Hong Kong in 2010.

He also had a two-year stint at Citi's private bank during that period.

In 2012, Mr Aba came to Singapore to become the head of investors for South Asia, before J.P. Morgan made him one of the top investment figures in South-east Asia in March this year.

Now, Mr Aba manages a 40-strong team that advises clients across the region, and he believes there is still plenty of room for J.P. Morgan to grow its South-east Asia business. "We know we're still very small in Singapore and, in fact, in Asia. We are not trying to be the biggest around, but certainly we can be bigger, and that's one of my key priorities right now," he said.

The work will be cut out for Mr Aba, who is well aware of the choppy market conditions that are challenging investors and private banking businesses alike.

The double whammy of growth concerns over China's wobbly economy and jitters over the exact timing of an interest rate hike by the US Federal Reserve has triggered repeated sell-offs.

But it is through this dim outlook that J.P. Morgan's value proposition will truly shine, Mr Aba believes.

"For us, these are, in fact, great times because people will want advice, which is J.P. Morgan's focus. We're not a broker and that's why our clients need us.

"Ultra-high net worth clients who have very complex balance sheets will need that help, to understand what's going on when, for example, you have a domestic business with offshore costs and you're facing currency depreciation, not to mention your personal assets.''

Moreover, volatility is not a portent of doom, Mr Aba stressed.

"Volatility is normal. It happens.

"If you take the last 35 years in the US, in 28 of those 35 years the average peak-to-trough sell-off is around 14 per cent. Nothing goes up and down in a straight line.

"But what's important is that, in those 28 years, the markets still ended in the positive territory despite the sell-off.

"Another way to look at it: From the roughly 6,000 trading days between January 1998 and July 2015, if you take out the very best performing 0.6 per cent trading days, your annualised returns would drop from 10.7 per cent to 2.86 per cent.''

Against this backdrop, it is important to look beyond trading and have a long-term, strategic approach to asset allocation.

"One of the challenges is when you face bumps in the roads, people get scared and they may overreact.

"You want to listen to what the market is telling you, you should pay attention, but you also want to make sure your decisions are informed and balanced," he said.

"So, if you ask me where I see investment opportunities - there are always opportunities in different financial cycles and you see opportunities now just as you did a year ago."

He said that in South-east Asia, Singapore shares' price-to-book levels are reaching low points not seen since the Asian financial crisis.

"There will soon come a time to buy because this economy is the most resilient in the neighbourhood," he said.

As he guides his South-east Asian clients through the uneven investment landscape, Mr Aba is ready to dedicate himself to his job.

He would know about dedication and sacrifice, having once worked 100 hours a week as a paralegal at a New York law firm for over a year after he graduated from Bowdoin College in the US state of Maine.

But the one thing he will not sacrifice is his time with family.

"I have just two things is my life - my family and J.P. Morgan. I have two girls, aged three and five.

"The important thing is this: I work very hard to do well in my job, and I also want to work hard to do well as a father. That doesn't leave me with a lot of time for hobbies, but I'm happy with that - my hobby is spending time with my kids."

Hence, his other priority in life now: "Once every week, usually Friday, I go home early to read stories to my kids. I hope to do that more often."

Correction note: An earlier version of this story wrongly stated Mr Aba's age as 35. He is 38.  We are sorry for the error.  

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline ''You have to run very fast just to stand still''. Print Edition | Subscribe