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Demystifying International Internships

Anyone in the mood for a healthy dose of emerging market volatility?
There is a common misconception that any aspiring undergraduate banker must obtain a Western (Europe or US)-based investment banking internship their second year before formal third year recruiting begins. There is a fear that having an international internship implies an inability to obtain a more “quality” US or Western-based internship. However, with the right story, an unconventional finance internship in an unconventional location can show diversity of experience and professional flexibility — an ability to work in less structured environments and undertake multiple projects. In fact, an international internship can really round out a resume and can provide exposure to some very exciting emerging markets (certainly more talking points that the guy who did the traditional boutique shop). Of course, if you intern at a Western bank in the region, you will probably still get the same deal as if you did the internship in the US or in Europe, except in a different market.
What type of work can you expect?
The typical Southeast Asian and broadly Asian banking experience is highly dynamic and varied. For instance, finance experience in Southeast Asian firms is more on the generalist side and can involve heavy research given the lack of information and opportunities for development in the region. Financial advisory in a Big 4 or local investment banks might look into the business development of new loan markets, such as microfinance and/or Islamic finance. Investment banking deals will be in the range of 50 to 250 million dollars and will focus a bit more on debt capital markets and blue chip equity research. Wealth Management and Family Offices are also rising business models that match the increase of wealth in the region.
Southeast Asian investment banking is not glamorous — you won’t get the big private equity funds nor the multiple multi-billion dollar deals. You will, however, get good exposure in cross-border deals, debt capital markets, and project finance for both public and private companies. You might even get to broker some government public-private partnership deals. Asian banking in general will expose you to smaller, but high growth, companies and industries with interesting business models and organizational structures. DCM is probably one of the more lucrative groups in Asian banking, primarily to fuel the fast expansion of businesses and projects.
The relatively unstructured nature of the work can mean that you have freedom to hop on different assignments at any time and even cross departments. In most cases, you also have the leeway to produce deliverables that may present additional value-add. This flexibility can help in pursuing interests across a broad range of finance functions in the early stages of a career. The large regional Singaporean banks offer rotational programs to expose interns and new analysts to a variety of business lines to determine interest. The variety of experiences should lead to a richer resume and allow you to talk candidly and formally about a range of interesting, relevant financial work.
Culture
Culture tends to be very open though can be traditional and hierarchical, meaning more senior personnel are addressed as “Sir” or “Madam”. Depending on your manager or partner, client interactions can be limited but are generally encouraged when the situation is appropriate and if there is time. Most senior bankers are Western trained and/or hold Western MBAs and in many cases carry a more US-style attitude to their management of human capital. Culture is also more relaxed in the junior ranks and mentorship is valued for new interns and employees. There will still be long hours if live deals are in the pipeline.
With international internships, you can still gain the same experience quality as a Western-based internship but with a more dynamic (even entrepreneurial!) outlook and exposure to emerging market trends. Many universities and organizations even sponsor and fund international work experiences (https://careeradvancement.uchicago.edu/jobs-internships-research/international-experience-grants). So, in an economic environment starved of returns, why not take a chance with emerging market internships and gain some novel perspectives (and save some cash)?

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