China Bank Moves to Buy U.S. Branches
ICBC Signs a Deal for Bank of East Asia’s Retail Outlets
By LINGLING WEI
CHICAGO—China’s biggest bank signed an agreement that would make it the first Beijing-controlled financial institution to acquire retail bank branches in the U.S., though regulators could still block the deal..
Under the deal, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., by some measures the world’s largest bank, agreed to acquire a majority stake in Bank of East Asia Ltd.’s U.S. subsidiary. ICBC will pay $140 million for an 80% stake. Bank of East Asia, which is a publicly traded company based in Hong Kong, has a total of 13 branches in New York and California. ICBC and Bank of East Asia have talked to U.S. regulators about the deal, these people said.
The move represents what could be the start of big expansions by Chinese financial institutions in the U.S.
Signed in Chicago on the last day of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the U.S., the move, comes as both Beijing and Washington are calling for greater commercial ties between the two countries.
Both Beijing and Washington are eager to showcase their willingness to strengthen the business ties between the two countries, despite the many issues that will continue to hinder the relations. China is prodding the U.S. to ease its export controls, especially those involving high-technology products, aimed at its biggest economic rival. The U.S. is asking for more Chinese purchases of made-in-America goods and services.
The transaction is expected to be carefully scrutinized by U.S. regulators, including the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., known as CFIUS, because of the state-controlled nature of the Chinese bank. A previous deal by a Chinese bank to acquire a bank in the U.S. was rejected by regulators. “It is going to be a long process,” a person familiar with the matter said.
If ICBC’s deal to acquire Bank of East Asia’s U.S. subsidiary goes through, Americans could walk into the retail branches, open check and savings accounts and, most significantly for many investors, open yuan accounts to trade the currency.
ICBC, as the bank is known, is based in Beijing and is 70% owned by the Chinese government. It has become increasingly comfortable venturing outside its home markets, which still account for the bulk of its profit. Last year, ICBC got into the broker-dealer business in the U.S. with a symbolic $1 purchase of the U.S. brokerage unit of Fortis Securities, controlled by France’s BNP Paribas SA. That deal didn’t subject ICBC to tight U.S. regulatory restrictions on foreign purchases of retail-banking operations.
U.S. regulators often demand that foreign banks prove they are adequately supervised in their home markets and have proper antimoney-laundering procedures in place before allowing them to set up retail operations, legal experts say.
The agreement was signed at the Hilton Chicago as part of a slew of pacts announced by roughly 60 U.S. and Chinese companies at a giant “signing ceremony” organized on Friday by China’s Commerce Ministry and its U.S. counterpart.
Both Beijing and Washington are eager to showcase their willingness to strengthen the business ties between the two countries, despite the many issues that will continue to hinder the relations. China is prodding the U.S. to ease its export controls, especially those involving high-technology products, aimed at its biggest economic rival while the U.S. is asking for more Chinese purchases of made-in-America goods and services. The contract-signing event in Chicago was hailed as “the most important event” in conjunction with President Hu’s visit, according to officials in the Chinese delegation.
The move by ICBC underscores the desire by Chinese banking executives to transform their strength into a greater presence globally, as Chinese banks have emerged from the global financial crisis largely unscathed. Their hope is to better support Chinese companies and guard against losing customers to U.S. and European banks that already have networks world-wide. Meantime, Beijing has encouraged Chinese companies to expand overseas in recent years. In light of the huge foreign-exchange reserves China has, Beijing has encouraged its banks to invest more overseas.
In a speech at the event Friday, Chen Deming, China’s Commerce Minister, said one of the priorities for the Commerce Ministry is to “encourage our companies to go out.” He pointed to the vast foreign-exchange reserves held by China, saying that “we should turn those reserves into capital and assets.” Otherwise, the reserves could decline in value because of inflation, Mr. Chen said.
Bank of East Asia is led by prominent Asian banker Sir David Li. Mr. Li drew unwanted attention to himself in the U.S. and Hong Kong in 2007 when the former board member of Dow Jones became the target of an insider-trading case involving News Corp.’s buyout bid for Dow Jones. Mr. Li later agreed to pay $8.1 million to settle the civil charges. Mr. Li couldn’t be reached for comment.While China’s resource and construction companies have moved aggressively into new markets, its financial institutions generally have been slow to follow.
So far, most Chinese investments in the U.S. financial sector have involved the Chinese taking passive, minority stakes in firms such as Blackstone GroupLP and Morgan Stanley. Taking a majority stake in Bank of East Asia is a change of tactic for ICBC
At the same time, Bank of East Asia is no stranger to ICBC. It sold a 70% stake in its Canadian operations to ICBC last year and all of its six branches in Canada have since been rebranded ICBC Canada. Bank of East Asia has 13 branches in the U.S., concentrating in New York and California—two states that boast the largest numbers of Chinese immigrants. The bank formed its U.S. banking subsidiary in 2001 through the acquisition of Grand National Bank, of Alhambra, Calif.
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The deal, if approved by U.S. regulators, would allow ICBC to gain relatively quick access to American depositors. Right now, ICBC has one branch in New York, but it isn’t involved in the retail-banking business. Bank of China Ltd. is the only mainland Chinese bank that has a retail license in the U.S. market. The bank, also state owned, has two branches in New York and one in Los Angeles. It recently has started allowing American customers to buy and sell the Chinese currency through its U.S. branches.
The decision by Bank of China is the latest move by China to allow the yuan, whose value is still tightly controlled by the government, to become an international currency that can be used for trade and investment.
Chinese banks have encountered uphill battles to gain access to the U.S. market in the past. For instance, it took almost two years for ICBC to get the approval from the Federal Reserve to open its New York branch, which has so far focused on commercial lending. That green light was given shortly before President George W. Bush’s trip to Beijing for the Summer Olympics in 2008.
Some Chinese banks’ bids to acquire U.S. counterparts have been rejected. A case in point is China Minsheng Banking Corp. In 2008, Minsheng, China’s first private bank and a midsize lender, agreed to take a 9.9% stake in San Francisco lender UCBH Holdings Inc., the holding company for United Commercial Bank. When the bank ran into trouble during the financial crisis over bad loans and accounting errors, Minsheng tried to buy it. U.S. regulators rejected the move because of restrictions on foreign investment in U.S. banks, according to people familiar with the matter. Regulators in late 2009 shut down United Commercial Bank and Minsheng had to write off its $130 million investment
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