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Durham University

Department of Geography

Staff Profile

Dr Karen Lai

Personal web page

Associate Professor in the Department of Geography
Telephone: +44 (0) 191 33 41865
Fax: +44 (0) 191 33 41801
Room number: 228

Contact Dr Karen Lai (email at karen.lai@durham.ac.uk)

Biography

I am an economic geographer with research expertise on financial geography. My research interests include geographies of money and finance, global cities, service sectors and market formation, focusing particularly on issues of financialisation, knowledge networks, and economic development in Asia and their wider production networks with Europe. My work also draws upon interdisciplinary ideas from economic sociology, international political economy, cultural studies and social studies of finance. I received my Bachelor and Master degrees in Geography from the National University of Singapore and completed my PhD in Economic Geography at the University of Nottingham. Prior to Durham University, I was previously based at the National University of Singapore and University of British Columbia (Canada). 

I am currently working on two key research strands: 

1) Fintech and financial ecologies 
FinTech encompasses a new wave of companies developing new products and platforms to change the way businesses and consumers to make payments, lend, borrow and invest. These developments are disrupting traditional value chains and production networks. Given the potential of FinTech to redraw existing maps of global financial flows and innovative activities, there are urgent questions regarding locational decisions of FinTech entities, how they intersect with knowledge networks in financial centres and innovative clusters, and the types of capital and regulatory structures that would support FinTech development. This research project will analyse the emergence and development of FinTech as an ecosystem of related firms, actors and institutions operating at the intersections of finance and technology innovations, in order to understand the changing roles of international financial centres. With rich opportunities offered by the rapidly growing economies of Southeast Asia and the prominence of FinTech giants in China, Singapore and Hong Kong are embedded in different types of FinTech landscapes and ecosystems. This study focuses on the organisational and spatial dimensions of key firms and actors in Singapore and Hong Kong, and the opportunities and challenges that they face in their ambitions to become the leading FinTech hub in Asia amidst existing regional competition. 

2) Global production/financial networks of investment banks and law firms
This study examines the global financial networks (GFN) of investment banks in two specific sectors — mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and initial public offerings (IPO) — to investigate how networks of underwriters, legal counsel, auditing and other due diligence has developed and changed over time. Over the past 20 decades, large transnational corporations (TNCs) have shifted more of their borrowing needs from bank-based financing to capital markets, creating greater demand for advisory, brokerage and trading services from investment banks and other advanced business services (ABS). Finance has become an increasingly important driver of global production structures and strategies, in terms of financial narratives, logics and instruments that shape the depth and extent of firms’ global activities. The study investigates the geographical and cross-industry variations in the networks of underwriters, bookrunners and auxiliary firms in terms of bulge bracket (often American) investment banks and more specifically their operational networks in Asia. Such GFNs could reveal insights into the relative roles and importance of investment banks and ABS firms in Asian GPNs, the significance of established corporate relationships in other financial centres on investment banking activities in Asia, and the impact of corporate clients on M&A and IPO processes and activities. Findings from the project will contribute to understanding the financial dimensions of the complex multi-actor networks underpinning the production of goods and services in the global economy.

Previously, I was working on a research project titled 'Financial subject formation and the financialisation of everyday life’. This study focuses on financial intermediaries (relationship managers, financial planners etc.) and consumers (retail investors) and their financial subjectification—the ways in which they are moulded into ‘responsible’ and ‘knowledgeable’ investors through industry development and consumer education. Much of this growth in wealth management and insurance sectors have been driven by increasing affluence of the local population and wealth in the region (e.g. Indonesia, China, India), along with changing patterns of savings and consumption that are partly institutionally driven. Building on the literature on financialisation, I use the empirical findings to build theoretical arguments on financial ecologies and state-led financialisation. 

Research Groups

Research Interests

  • Geographies of money and finance
  • International financial centre
  • Fintech and digital economies
  • Global production/financial networks
  • Global cities and world city networks
  • Markets and varieties of capitalism/variegated capitalism
  • Political economy and development in Asia

Selected Publications

Journal Article

Chapter in book

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