Politicians from both sides of aisle state that they want to break up the large American banks. But they have failed to consider a worrisome consequence if banks — through the process of downsizing — put their subsidiaries up for bid or exit certain business lines.
If large banks divest assets or business units, no one has asked whether that opens the door for large foreign conglomerates — including Chinese banks — to acquire larger pieces of America's banking system. In China, the largest banks are state-owned. Would our country reject such as acquisition for national security and economic issues? I hope so.
Right now, this is only a "what if" question, because our largest banks are American-owned. But if we were faced with such a reality, the extent to which we would allow Chinese interests into our banking landscape would have huge ramifications.
It is easy for political reasons to bash our systemic-risk banks that have a global presence. But it is important to remember that in our country we need all banks — large, regional and community banks — to have a strong economy. If you review the 2016 list of the top 50 banks in the world, there are only four FDIC-chartered American banks on it. There are 12 banks from China, including four of the top five.
Chinese companies are already looking to gain further entry into our financial services system and other sectors as well. Recently, a Chinese conglomerate offered to purchase Genworth Financial for $2.7 billion. Will that purchase be approved? In 2005, UNOOC, a Chinese oil company 70% owned by the Chinese government, dropped its $18.5 billion bid to purchase an American-based oil company, Unocal. The Chinese were concerned that the transaction would not be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. CFIUS is an interagency committee authorized to review transactions that could result in control of a U.S. business by a foreign person in order to determine the effect of such transactions on the national security of the United States.
The issue of allowing Chinese interests to purchase companies is common for many countries, including Germany, which two weeks ago denied a bid by a Chinese tech company to purchase Aixtron, a German chip maker.
We need regulation; no one, including myself, is calling for a regulation-free system. But politicians calling for a big-bank breakup, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, need to understand why large American-owned global banks are a crucial ingredient in our financial system. Right now, our regulatory system has reached a tipping point where the burden is hurting banks of all sizes: community, regional and the largest banks. We need community and regional banks to continue funding small-business startups and medium-sized companies. But our larger banks are instrumental, too. They fund the business needs of large companies that employ tens of millions of Americans. If we break up our large banks, or drive them to be sold, what if a behemoth Chinese bank bids to buy one?
Do we want large global American companies that employ tens of millions of Americans to rely on a Chinese megabank for credit? Would that scenario be in the best national security interests of the U.S.? The answer is no. There is an unknown entanglement of many Chinese companies with the Chinese government. Where one entity ends and the other begins is tough to figure out. I offer that our country should be concerned for American interests if we ever faced this "what if" question.
Alejandro M. Sanchez is president and CEO of the Florida Bankers Association.