SGX landed a major victory last month when Li Ka-shing, the billionaire Hong Kong property magnate, said he planned to list his Chinese port assets in Singapore, where tax regulations are more favorable.
Singapore also plans to introduce a high-speed trading engine in August, which SGX says will be the fastest in the world. The software, according to the company, will allow trades to be completed in 90 microseconds, faster than the 98 microseconds the Nasdaq says it takes.
For Hong Kong, the onus is on securing its position as the gateway to China. While Shanghai and Shenzhen scored high in the I.P.O. rankings, the mainland markets remain largely closed to foreign investors, a reason many companies that list their securities in China also do so in Hong Kong.
To help cement that connection, Hong Kong said in November that it would extend its trading hours and shorten its lunch break, more closely aligning its schedule with that of Shanghai. Two months later, Singapore said it would eliminate its midday hiatus altogether.
“This lunch hour competition is a little bit of Hong Kong-Singapore one-upmanship,” Mr. Kleiman said. “It’s the battle for Asian dominance after a record year of capital inflows.”
The lunch hour is the last vestige of a bygone colonial era. While London shed its more laidback habits more than 60 years ago, the British influence has lingered in Asia for decades.
“When I first arrived it was very British: there was a mandatory half-day on Saturday where people would sit around and read newspapers and clean up their desk,” said Todd Martin, an equity strategist in Hong Kong for the French bank Société Générale, who has worked in Asian markets for the past 18 years.
“The Asian crisis changed all that,” Mr. Martin, a Canadian citizen, said, referring to the financial shock that destabilized many economies in the region in the late 1990s. “It really shook up the old industry and a lot of the old British brokers.”
Now, the lunch break is disappearing, too — a move that’s rather controversial in Hong Kong and Singapore. Stockbrokers and other market professionals point out that they don’t simply put their feet up on the desk or go out for a long, leisurely meal. Many spend the time meeting with clients and attending business events like I.P.O. presentations.
“It’s terrible,” said Francis Lun, general manager at Fulbright Securities in Hong Kong. “I think they think the employees can work like machines.”
Some also argue the extended trading hours put smaller trading firms at a disadvantage, given the costs of adding staff. It’s also unclear whether the extra hours will translate into higher trading volumes and bigger profits. Resistance from local firms is one reason that established Asian exchanges have hung on to lunch breaks for so long.
“It is easier for local brokerages that are smaller to work with fewer people if the lunch breaks are present,” said Anshuman Jaswal, a capital markets analyst based in Bangalore for the financial consulting firm Celent.
But lunch breaks have also proved problematic, say traders. For one, the computer trading programs on which many firms rely don’t function as effectively if stock activity stops in the middle of the day, said Hani Shalabi, who oversees the electronic stock trading for Credit Suisse clients in the Asia-Pacific region.
The changes also greatly reduce so-called gap risk, when a stock price moves significantly after news that comes out in the off hours.
“Anything could happen, war could break out,” Mr. Shalabi said. “Weekend gap risk is massive. Lunch is the same thing, but to a smaller extent.”
His job is to help smooth out the potential bumps such situations can create for his clients as he supervises computers delving into multiple markets across the region. All of which does not leave a lot of time for three-course meals.
“We’re eating at our desk no matter what happens,” Mr. Shalabi said.