HONG KONG — Political opposition has been quashed. Free speech has been stifled. The independent court system may be next.
But while Hong Kong’s top leaders take a tougher line on the city of more than seven million people, they are courting a crucial constituency: the rich. Top officials are preparing a new tax break and other sweeteners to portray Hong Kong as the premier place in Asia to make money, despite the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly autocratic rule.
So far, the pitch is working. Cambridge Associates, a $30 billion investment fund, said in March it planned to open an office in the city. Investment managers have set up more than a hundred new companies in recent months. The Wall Street banks Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley are increasing their Hong Kong staffing.
“Hong Kong is second only to New York as the world’s billionaire city,” said Paul Chan, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, at an online gathering of finance executives this year.
erupted two years ago. At the same time, it is trying to charm the city’s financial class to keep it from moving to another business-friendly place like Singapore.
“It is a one-party state, but they are pragmatic and they don’t want to hurt business,” Fred Hu, a former chairman of Goldman’s Greater China business, said of Chinese officials.
For apolitical financial types, the changes will have little impact, said Mr. Hu, who is also the founder of the private equity firm Primavera Capital Group. “If you’re a banker or a trader, you may have political views, but you’re not a political activist,” he said.
flowed out of local Hong Kong bank accounts and into jurisdictions like Singapore.
Tensions run taut inside Hong Kong’s gleaming office towers. Even executives who are sympathetic to the government have declined to speak publicly for fear of getting caught in the political crossfire between Beijing and world capitals like Washington and London. Hong Kong’s tough rules on movement in the pandemic may also spark some expatriates to leave in the summer once school ends.
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For now, however, financial firms are doubling down on Hong Kong. Neal Horwitz, an executive recruiter in Singapore, said finance was likely to remain in Hong Kong “until the ship goes down.”
carried interest, which is typically earned by private equity investors and hedge funds. Officials had discussed the plan for years but didn’t introduce a bill until February, and it could pass in the coming months through the city’s Beijing-dominated legislature.
sparked criticism elsewhere, including in the United States. But Hong Kong fears a financial exodus without such benefits, said Maurice Tse, a finance professor at Hong Kong University’s business school.
“To keep these people around we have to give a tax benefit,” he said.
Hong Kong has also proposed a program, Wealth Management Connect, that would give mainland residents in the southern region known as the Greater Bay Area the ability to invest in Hong Kong-based hedge funds and investment firms. Officials have boasted that it would give foreign firms access to 72 million people. Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials signed an agreement in February to start a pilot program at an unspecified time.
Pandemic travel restrictions have slowed the proposal’s momentum, said King Au, the executive director of Hong Kong’s Financial Services Development Council, but it remains a top priority.
“I want to highlight how important the China market is to global investors,” Mr. Au said.
Mainland money has already helped Hong Kong look more attractive. Chinese firms largely fueled a record $52 billion haul for companies that sold new shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange last year, according to Dealogic, a data provider. New offerings this year have already raised $16 billion, including $5.4 billion for Kuaishou, which operates a Chinese video app. The record start has been helped in part by Chinese companies that have been pressured by Washington to avoid raising money in the United States.
triple its hires across China, and a spokeswoman said a Hong Kong staff increase was part of that. Bank of America is adding more people in Hong Kong, while Citi has said it will hire as many as 1,700 people in Hong Kong this year alone.
hew to the party line. Still, it is considering moving some of its top executives to Hong Kong, because it will be “important to be closer to growth opportunities,” Noel Quinn, HSBC’s chief executive, said in February.
Investment funds are flocking to Hong Kong, too, after officials in August lowered regulatory barriers to setting up legal structures similar to those used in low-tax, opaque jurisdictions like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. Government data shows that 154 funds have been registered since then.
Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, and Li Zhanshu, the Communist Party’s No. 3 official, at one point owned Hong Kong property, according to a trail that can be traced partly through public records.
While officials have welcomed business, they have made clear to the financial and business worlds that they will brook no dissent. In March, Han Zheng, a Chinese vice premier, praised the stock market’s performance and the finance sector in a meeting with a political advisory group but made its limits clear.
“The signal to the business community is very simple,” said Michael Tien, a former Hong Kong lawmaker and businessman who attended the closed-door session. “Stay out of politics.”
On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Mr. Biden’s nominee to run the Small Business Administration, Isabel Guzman, by an 81-to-17 vote.
Despite the concerns, Mr. Biden was met with praise in Chester, Pa., when he visited Smith Flooring, a Black-owned business that supplies and installs flooring. White House officials said the shop cut payroll over the last year, from 22 union employees to 12, after revenues declined by 20 percent during the pandemic. It has survived, the officials said, thanks in part to two rounds of loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, which Congress established last year during the Trump administration to help small businesses.
“This is a great outfit. This is a union shop,” Mr. Biden said in brief remarks. Its employees, he said, “work like the devil, and they can make a decent wage, a living wage.”
The owners of Smith Flooring, Kristin and James Smith, secured their second loan from the program as part of one of the Biden administration’s changes, which created a two-week exclusive period for certain very small businesses to receive loans. They thanked Mr. Biden for his efforts and for visiting Chester.
Mr. Biden’s aid bill, signed last week, added $7 billion to the program and funded others to help struggling businesses, including a $28 billion grant fund for restaurants. The law also set aside additional money for other relief efforts run by the Small Business Administration, including a long-delayed grant program for music clubs and other live-event businesses, which the agency said would start accepting applications early next month.
Lenders are scrambling to carry out the administration’s changes to the Paycheck Protection Program and finish processing a flood of applications before March 31. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants called the deadline “unrealistic,” and 10 banking groups sent a letter to lawmakers urging Congress to give them more time.
The latest revision of the Paycheck Protection Program appeared to be a victory for the most vulnerable small businesses, offering more generous relief to companies like solo ventures that were eligible for only tiny loans — or none at all.
If only they could take advantage of the changes.
President Biden announced an abrupt overhaul two weeks ago to funnel more money to very small companies, some of which qualified for loans as small as $1 under the old guidelines. But the Small Business Administration updated its systems only on Friday, and with just three weeks before the program is set to expire, some lenders say there just isn’t enough time to adapt to the changes.
The result has been gridlock and uncertainty that have left tens of thousands of self-employed people frantic to find lenders willing to issue the more generous loans before the program ends on March 31.
JPMorgan Chase, the program’s largest lender this year in terms of dollars disbursed, doesn’t plan to act on the new loan formula before it stops accepting applications on March 19. Bank of America, the second-biggest lender, opted against updating its loan application and said it would contact self-employed applicants to manually sort out their applications — but wouldn’t accept new ones after 5 p.m. today.
forums like Reddit to hash out their options and to swap tips on which lenders are using the new formula and which ones are not. “Desperate for Guidance!” one typical post reads. “Reaching out to see if anyone can help me figure out this absolutely monstrous failure.”
The disarray is compounded by the other major change Mr. Biden announced last month: a 14-day window, which ends today, during which the Small Business Administration would accept applications only from companies with fewer than 20 employees. The intent was to get aid to needy businesses, especially those run by women and minorities. The vast majority of those businesses are sole proprietorships that would benefit from the new formula, and many rushed to take advantage of the priority period.
But the nearly two-week delay for the more generous rules put lenders in a tough spot: They could pause applications from sole proprietors, creating a backlog they would later have to unravel, or they could approve applications under the previous formula, which would result in much smaller loans for their customers.
Biz2Credit, which has made more loans this year than any other lender, temporarily stopped accepting applications while it worked to adjust to the new rules. It plans to resume this week, said Rohit Arora, its chief executive.
Other large lenders — including Cross River Bank and Customers Bank, which round out the program’s top five lenders — said they had begun processing loans on Monday using the new formula.
Hundreds of thousands of borrowers who have already received their loans have no way to reapply under the more generous rules, infuriating business owners like Bryan Cordova, who finalized a loan for his printing business in Round Rock, Texas, just days before Mr. Biden announced the changes.
stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.
Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more
This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.
There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.
The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.
Even before the changes were announced last month, lenders were trying to unravel extensive errors and data verification problems that had stalled tens of thousands of applications. It would take an act of Congress to push back the deadline, and lenders and trade groups are calling, with increasing urgency, for an extension.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants called the March 31 deadline “unrealistic,” and 10 banking groups sent a letter to lawmakers last week urging Congress to give them more time.
The Biden administration has not sought an extension, but key congressional leaders have said they are willing to pass legislation that would push back the deadline. The House Small Business Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Wednesday about the status of the Paycheck Protection Program.
“It’s clear that small businesses are still feeling the effects of the Covid crisis and need P.P.P.’s support,” said Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, a New York Democrat who leads the House committee. She said Congress must “ensure this critical lifeline isn’t abruptly pulled away from small businesses.”
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland and the leader of his chamber’s small business committee, “would be open to a bipartisan agreement” to extend the deadline, according to a spokesman, Fabion Seaton.
have been waiting for months for the federal government to open a generous $15 billion grant fund for their industry that was authorized in December. But the money will not start flowing until April at the earliest, according to Mr. Coleman, the Small Business Administration spokesman.
Businesses have been barred from taking one of those grants if they also took a Paycheck Protection Program loan this year, but the $1.9 trillion relief bill that passed the Senate on Saturday would remove that restriction and count the loan toward any grant the business receives later. The bill is now before the House and is likely to be finalized by Mr. Biden this week.
That change would allow venues like the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas to get help faster. “We were thrilled to see that come through,” said Debbie Storey, the center’s chief executive.
Ms. Storey’s organization made the “painful” choice last week to forgo the grant and seek a Paycheck Protection Program loan instead, she said. Her lender had urged the center to apply this week or risk missing the deadline.
“We couldn’t afford to miss that window,” she said.