News that the Federal Reserve will allow ICBC, the largest state-owned bank in China, to buy U.S. bank branches caused a stir here in the West, with critics denouncing the move as more "evidence" that the United States is selling out to the Chinese.
What most American media failed to report, however, is that the Chinese had reciprocated by allowing higher U.S. ownership of financial firms in China. The Chinese also gave the green light to U.S. financial firms to engage in futures trading on the Chinese mainland. Together, the U.S./China deals actually provide far more revenue and profit opportunities to American financial firms operating in China than vice versa.
American financial firms have been struggling to find a new growth engine. After the financial crisis of 2008, many firms continued to speculate in commodities, but that also became a bubble that started to deflate as soon as China announced its curbs on real estate development. Speculating in currencies such as the euro and the yen also proved unprofitable when government interventions turned one-way bets into roller coaster rides. China's financial markets remain the last frontier where untapped demand has not been met, so the ability for U.S. firms to capture a greater share of the upside potential there is, for them, a light at the end of a long tunnel.
On the flip side, Chinese banks stand little chance of winning much market share on American soil, let alone making much money from deposit gathering.
Commercial banking is a commodity business. Even large European firms such as HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank have not had much success dislodging their American competitors here. These banks instead have chosen to focus on emerging markets such as China, where the growth opportunities are far more attractive. There is no reason to believe that China's banks, which are far less sophisticated than an HSBC, would fare any better in competing for American retail banking business.
Moreover, the American bias to do business with American entities-or foreign ones if they are familiar enough-rather than foreign ones they have never heard of will make it doubly hard for Chinese banks to retain customers once they start purchasing existing U.S. bank branches. (An exception to this might be found in the Chinatown sections of big U.S. cities, where customers presumably would be less likely to consider switching banks just because their local branch has come under Chinese ownership.)
In reality, allowing China's banks to buy up American branches will help the American economy more than most other economic policy options.
It has been well reported that many small and medium-sized businesses couldn't get financing after the crisis turned a number of lenders into zombie banks. With bad loans weighing down their portfolios, many were just waiting for the FDIC to close shop. Even now, credit can feel scarce. However, with new entrants from China, fresh capital could be made available to entrepreneurs and business owners who otherwise might fail to find financing. This one development could single-handedly revive the American private sector more than any government handout.
There will always be Americans who look skeptically and suspiciously at the idea of allowing China's companies to operate on American soil. This phobia is reminiscent of fears in the 1980s that the Japanese were buying up America. But as we see today, the Japanese, even with sophisticated banks like Nomura operating on Wall Street, are no match for their American counterparts.
It would take decades or longer before China's banks could truly compete with their American counterparts, in part because they don't have deep benches of talent in financial services. They may attempt to catch up on this front by recruiting Americans to work for them, but they are unlikely to offer very competitive pay packages, which would be politically unacceptable in mainland China.