Posted on December 11, 2008

The Reverse Brain Drain

Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail(Toronto), December 11, 2008

Five months ago, Pankaj Dinodia was on top of the Wall Street boom: At age 25, the Indian immigrant had made it through one of the top U.S. business schools and held an important investment banking position with Goldman Sachs.

Then, in the middle of the summer, he felt the calling. The future didn’t look so good in the big Western markets, he decided. Those calls from his family in New Delhi, urging him to come back and help out with the family accounting business, sounded more sensible. So he gave up his huge bonus and got on a plane.

At the time, his move from the world’s most successful investment bank to the poky New Delhi offices of S.R. Dinodia & Co., Chartered Accountants, bewildered his friends and colleagues: It was as if he had abandoned his future.

Now they’re all phoning him.

People like Mr. Dinodia are pioneers in the “reverse brain drain,” a huge shift of knowledge and skills out of New York and London and back into the developing world. In one of the surprising consequences of the global financial meltdown, the collapse of the Western banking and finance industries has sent thousands of highly skilled professionals from immigrant backgrounds back to their homelands, where they are taking on key roles in emerging economies.

“I have ridden the bubble to the top and got out when things started looking shaky, but a lot of my colleagues have lost their jobs . . . the Lehman Brothers of the world, the Bear Stearns of the world are no longer sucking up talent from India but instead sending it back,” Mr. Dinodia said from New Delhi the other day.

“So companies here can now hire bankers with the kind of experience we never could have dreamed of employing before the crunch.”

Precise figures of professionals returning home aren’t available, but reverse migration has become a major issue in a number of countries. The financial sectors in India and China are being bolstered by a reverse exodus of highly trained but suddenly jobless bankers and analysts. Brazil and Turkey have observed the same effect. The trend is also visible in smaller developed countries, such as Israel and Australia, that have avoided the worst of the crash.

And Malaysia may have gone the furthest in exploiting the phenomenon: Its higher-education minister announced recently that his country’s institutions should launch an international program “to identify Malaysian professionals who lost their jobs abroad to return and work.”

The reversal is particularly dramatic in India, where human resource managers for finance firms are reporting hundreds of résumés from New York and London arriving on their desks each week.

Mr. Dinodia has found himself at the centre of this phenomenon. After he arrived in India, he set up an online community for Indian-born graduates of the Wharton School—the acclaimed University of Pennsylvania business college where he’d earned his degree—to help them find positions in India’s thriving financial sector if they wanted to move back.

He thought he would end up helping out maybe a couple of dozen people. Then the markets collapsed. In the past six weeks, his network has helped 350 Wharton grads move back to India, using its circle of 50 India-based mentors and “industry captains” to place them in high-level positions in an economy that looks more promising, if a lot smaller, to many of them.

It’s become a second job for him, even as he struggles to bring structured financing and other tools of investment banking to his fast-growing family firm.

As he spoke, he read a new e-mail from a former classmate: “I have nine years of hedge fund experience on the public and private side; I’m happy to come in anywhere, from analyst to vice-president, in any role, I’m desperate; my kids go to a private school; I have a big mortgage; I’m looking for any job in India in investing.”

According to a large-scale study of 1,200 Indian and Chinese returnees to be published next month by Vivek Wadhwa, a U.S. immigration scholar and consultant, the majority of people joining the reverse brain drain are under 40, most have masters or doctorate degrees, and they’re generally leaving because they believe prospects look better in the world’s poorer half.

“These people seem to be doing better back home than they would have done in the U.S.,” Mr. Wadhwa said. “More than 60 per cent of Indian returnees and more than 80 per cent of Chinese returnees believe their home countries offer better career and professional opportunities.”

Mr. Wadhwa worries that U.S. immigration policies are pushing the best minds out of the country’s economy: Because the Green Card system only gives residency status to immigrants who have permanent jobs, and does not allow them to stay through a downturn, he believes the system is destroying the competitive advantage of the United States. He estimates that one million skilled foreign workers awaiting permanent residency visas in the U.S. are likely to leave.

(Canada’s immigration system is more flexible for workers in this position, but the Canadian banking system has not faced the collapse and bailout that the U.S. and Britain have endured, so a mass departure of foreign talent is less likely, experts say).

But a substantial number of the Indian and Chinese Americans headed eastward hold U.S. or British citizenship: It appears that many of these homeward-bound professionals aren’t simply victims of the crash, but entrepreneurs hoping to use their accumulated savings from the boom years to launch a wave of innovation in their home countries.

That’s how Mr. Dinodia saw it: “The plan was always to learn from the best and the brightest, the Whartons and the Goldman Sachs of he world, and then come back to the family business so that never again would a client leave us for a fancy name tag,” he explained.

“Even though it’s a domestic firm, I wanted people to realize that we have the best and the brightest brains within the firm itself.”

Something similar happened after the dot-com boom collapsed in 2000. Tens of thousands of Indian software engineers, who had formed the intellectual backbone of Silicon Valley’s period of vast growth and innovation, decided to move back home en masse. They turned to entrepreneurship, and their software companies ended up launching the great outsourcing boom of recent years, sending millions of jobs back to India.

There’s good reason to return eastward these days. While India’s economy is also hurting, some of its fundamentals appear stronger. Indian companies, large and small, have avoided heavily leveraged loan finance, and tend to be rich in cash.

Growth may have slowed, but it hasn’t stalled or gone negative.

Some returnees, like Mr. Dinodia, are realizing the dreams of parents who never thought they’d be able to match the six-figure bonuses of Wall Street and win their prodigal children back.

But for many others, the precise opposite is true.

“When I got on the plane and left the U.S. for India, my dad said, ‘I worked my whole life to give you the opportunity to be educated and work in the U.S., and the first thing you do after a few years of work is fly right back to India,’ ” said Samvir Sidhu, also 25, who recently left behind a Wall Street job—and his American citizenship—to join a private equity firm in New Delhi.

“It was quite an ironic revelation.”