Strength in the banks’ investing, lending and trading businesses added to the euphoria. All three reported robust revenues across multiple lines of business, driven by a combination of active and rising markets, a flurry of new mortgage activity and the boom in special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. Corporate merger and acquisition activity also marked an all-time high by dollar value.
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Goldman — a dominant player in corporate advisory services and in markets — reported a doubling of revenue to $17.7 billion, from $8.7 billion, thanks to double-digit percentage gains in investment banking, money management and markets. JPMorgan reported a 14 percent rise in revenue to $33.1 billion from $29 billion, driven by both markets and investment banking.
Wells Fargo’s revenue rose 2 percent, buoyed partly by a 19 percent jump in home lending, as Americans migrated away from cities and into more suburban or rural areas. The results “reflected an improving U.S. economy,” but low interest rates and sluggish demand for loans were a “headwind,” said Charles W. Scharf, the bank’s chief executive.
The banks have been major — if somewhat unintended — beneficiaries of the government’s spending push over the last year that sought to keep the shock of virus-related economic shutdowns from sending the economy into a long-term tailspin.
A little over year ago, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to near zero and restarted its bond-buying programs, effectively injecting trillions of freshly created dollars into financial markets, which helped bolster activity in mortgages, corporate bond issuance and deals.
Since then, stock markets have soared more than 80 percent, amid a boom in trading that crested this year. Both factors helped banks, which have businesses that buy and sell shares for clients. Goldman’s equities business made $3.7 billion in revenue in the first quarter, up 68 percent from last year. JPMorgan’s stock markets business notched $3.3 billion, up 47 percent.
Looking forward, several banks spotlighted the impact of recent infusions of stimulus checks on consumer accounts — a component of roughly $5 trillion the federal government has allocated to fighting the crisis over the last year. The influx of federal dollars has helped put the finances of American households on some of their firmest footing in years, bankers said, adding that there are growing indications consumers are eager to put the cash to work.
SAN FRANCISCO — Digital currency, once mocked as a tool for criminals and reckless speculators, is sliding into the mainstream.
Traditional banks are helping investors put their money into cryptocurrency funds. Companies like Tesla and Square are hoarding Bitcoin. And celebrities are leading the way in a digital-art spending spree using a technology called an NFT.
On Wednesday, digital or cryptocurrencies will take their biggest step yet toward wider acceptance when Coinbase, a start-up that allows people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, goes public on Nasdaq. Coinbase shares received a reference price of $250 each on Tuesday evening, which would value the company at $65 billion based on all its outstanding shares.
Call it crypto’s coming-out party. Coinbase, founded in San Francisco, is the first major cryptocurrency start-up to go public on a U.S. stock market. It is doing so at a valuation that tops that of Capital One Financial Corporation or Moody’s, the ratings agency.
plan to “create an open financial system for the world” and “increase economic freedom.”
But so far, cryptocurrency is mostly a vehicle for financial speculation and trading. Few people want to use Bitcoin for everyday purchases like coffee because its price is so volatile. Many early buyers have become wildly rich by simply holding their crypto or “buying the dip” when prices fall. Others ruefully relay tales of the sushi dinner they bought with Bitcoin years ago that would be worth $200,000 today or the million-dollar pizza.
Coinbase eases that trading by acting as a central exchange. Before it and similar services were created, people had to set up their own digital wallets and wire money.
“Can it be anything more than an asset class?” Mr. Tusk asked. “That’s still very much up in the air.”
Silk Road, a marketplace for buying and selling drugs and weapons with Bitcoin until the federal authorities shut it down, and Mt. Gox, a crypto exchange that collapsed under accusations of theft and embezzlement, further tarnished the young industry.
Coinbase tried to change that. The company joined Y Combinator, a prestigious start-up program, and raised money from top venture capital firms including Union Square Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.
Mr. Armstrong was one of the few people in the industry who seemed prepared to comply with inevitable regulations, rather than cut corners to avoid them, said Nick Tomaino, who dropped out of business school to join Coinbase in 2013.
Coinbase also persuaded well-known retailers to accept Bitcoin. “It was good for credibility when people saw you could actually use a Bitcoin to buy a mattress at Overstock,” Mr. Tomaino, who left in 2016, said. Coinbase earned money on transaction fees.
But Bitcoin’s wildly volatile price and a slow computer network that managed it made transactions difficult, and people began to see the currency as an investment. In 2015, Ethereum, a cryptocurrency network with more tech abilities, was introduced, enticing enthusiasts to build companies and funds around the technology.
Soon after, a flood of “initial coin offerings,” where companies sold tokens on the promise of the technology they planned to build, created a new boom in cryptocurrency trading. But it quickly deflated after many projects were found to be frauds andU.S. regulators deemed the offerings to be securities, requiring that they comply with financial rules.
Tesla to buy $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin and the payments company Square to spend $170 million. In March, Morgan Stanley began offering its wealthy clients access to three Bitcoin funds, and Goldman announced that it would soon offer similar access. The mayor of Miami has proposed that the city accept tax payments in Bitcoin and invest city funds in the asset.
The stock trading app Robinhood announced that 9.5 million of its customers had traded cryptocurrency in the first three months of the year — up more than fivefold from the previous three months. Venture funding for crypto-related start-ups surged to its highest-ever level in the first quarter to $3 billion, according to PitchBook.
PayPal recently added a crypto trading and shopping feature for its customers in the United States. The company was motivated by consumer interest and advances in the technology that made transactions faster. It plans to quickly expand the offering to customers around the world.
“It feels like the time is right,” said Jose Fernandez da Ponte, head of PayPal’s blockchain, crypto and digital currencies group. “We think this has the potential to revolutionize payments and financial systems in general.”
Still, the so-called revolution faces some challenges. Coinbase has sometimes struggled to keep up with demand, with some customers who lost access to their accounts complaining that the company has been unresponsive. It has also received criticism for its treatment of female and Black employees.
Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has threatened harsher regulation of the currencies, including limiting their use.
And a big drop in prices could again send speculators fleeing. In its financial prospectus, Coinbase warned that its business results would fluctuate with the volatility of crypto assets, “many of which are unpredictable and in certain instances are outside of our control.”
The industry’s biggest issue — fulfilling the promise that the technology is more than just a place to park money — could take another decade to play out.
“There’s no doubt we’re in the latest boom, and I don’t know if that’s going to turn tomorrow or two years from now,” Mr. Tomaino said. “But the busts and booms are always higher than the last.”
It was the type of windfall that investors pine for with every rally on Wall Street: $1,205,619.56 had inexplicably ended up in the brokerage account of a 911 dispatcher in Louisiana in February.
But the next day, when Charles Schwab tried to recover the money it had deposited in error into the account of Kelyn Spadoni, the authorities said, about a quarter of the funds were already gone. For about a month, the company said, calls, emails and text messages to Ms. Spadoni went unanswered.
The funds had been transferred to another account and used by Ms. Spadoni to buy a house and a Hyundai Genesis sport utility vehicle, according to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. She was arrested on fraud and theft charges on April 7 and fired as a dispatcher the same day, the Sheriff’s Office said.
In a lawsuit filed against Ms. Spadoni in federal court in New Orleans, Charles Schwab said that it was supposed to have moved only $82.56 into Ms. Spadoni’s Fidelity Brokerage Services account, but that a software glitch had caused it to mistakenly transfer the seven-figure sum.
“I think most people understand about how much money is in their bank accounts,” Capt. Jason Rivarde, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said in an interview on Monday. “When you’re expecting $80 and you get $1.2 million, there’s probably something wrong there.”
Ms. Spadoni, 33, of Harvey, La., has been charged with bank fraud, illegal transmission of monetary funds and theft greater than $25,000, the authorities said. She had been a dispatcher for four and a half years in the parish, just outside New Orleans.
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She did not immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment on Monday, and there was no record that she had a lawyer.
Ms. Spadoni was released on $150,000 bond on Thursday, according to Captain Rivarde, who said that a vast majority of the missing money had been recovered.
A spokesman for Charles Schwab said in an email on Sunday night that the company was fully cooperating with the authorities in an effort to resolve the issue, but declined to comment further.
According to the company, Ms. Spadoni opened the brokerage account in January, and the excess cash was added to a transfer request that she made in February.
Realizing the mistake, Schwab tried to reclaim the money through a computer system, but got a message that said “Cash not available,” the lawsuit said. A second attempt was also rejected, and Schwab received a message that said: “Insufficient funds, please work directly with the client to resolve.”
A Schwab employee called Ms. Spadoni four times but was unable to leave a message during two of those attempts because her answering machine was full, the lawsuit said. A corporate counsel for Schwab then called Ms. Spadoni at the Sheriff’s Office but was told that she was unavailable, according to the lawsuit, which said he then sent several text messages.
In its lawsuit, Schwab said that it had begun an arbitration proceeding against Ms. Spadoni with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, but that it would take two months for a resolution to the case. The company said it filed the lawsuit because it wanted to make sure that Ms. Spadoni did not spend the mistakenly transferred funds before the arbitration hearing.
“When you take something that obviously doesn’t belong to you,” Captain Rivarde said, “that would be theft.”
Lawyers and securities experts said a multibillion-dollar family office like Archegos could avoid making 13F disclosures, but it would require threading a needle: The firm could have managed money for only Mr. Hwang and his spouse — not other family members, fund employees or his charity, which operated on the same floor of a Midtown Manhattan office building. The firm could also have been able to skip filing a 13F if it sold off enough stocks to fall below the $100 million threshold before the end of each quarter. It also could have requested confidential treatment from the S.E.C. to keep such disclosures private, lawyers and experts said.
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Archegos was set up to make filings to the S.E.C. — it had its own Central Index Key number — but a search for documents returns no results.
The S.E.C. has opened an informal inquiry into Archegos and the spillover effects of its collapse, which caused billions of dollars in losses at banks around the globe. Regulators have declined to comment on the investigation.
Senator Sherrod Brown, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, sent letters to the half-dozen banks that did business with Archegos — including Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — seeking information about their dealings with Mr. Hwang’s firm. That includes information about any transactions that “would be subject to regulatory reporting with the S.E.C.”
The rules for 13F filings apply to “registered investment advisers and exempt reporting advisers that manage accounts on behalf of others, including advisers to separately managed accounts, private funds, mutual funds, and pension plans.” They must file if they have “discretion” over $100 million or more in securities at the end of a quarter.
Nicolas Morgan, a former S.E.C. lawyer, said a family office could get around the stock reporting requirement in only rare circumstances. It “would be outside the norm” to not file a 13F, said Mr. Morgan, a partner in the white-collar defense practice at Paul Hastings.
After the failure of Archegos, Americans for Financial Reform, an advocacy group, sent a letter to the S.E.C. calling for a review of 13F filings and whether gaps in the disclosure process created the registration exemption for family offices, which control roughly $6 trillion in assets, according to Campden Wealth, which provides research and networking opportunities to wealthy families.
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.”
His ideas were promoted with evangelical fervor in the 1970s particularly by two economists: Arthur Laffer, who became known for the “Laffer curve,” postulating that lower tax rates would generate higher government revenues, and Jude Wanniski, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, whose opinion pages took up Professor Mundell’s cause after a series of lunches and dinners at the Midtown Manhattan restaurant Michael’s, which were later described by Robert Bartley, The Journal’s opinion editor, in his book “The Seven Fat Years” (1992).
Professor Mundell’s argument gained ground in part because mainstream Keynesian economists were on the defensive, having a hard time accounting for the unexpected combination of slower growth and rising inflation during much of the 1970s. Professor Mundell argued, in contrast to the conventional wisdom, that low tax rates and easy fiscal policies should be used to spur economic expansion, and that higher interest rates and tight monetary policy were the proper tools to curb inflation.
That approach, with results that are still being debated today, was embraced in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan, who, in policy moves that came to be known as Reaganomics, cut tax rates sharply and backed the Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker as he raised interest rates to bring inflation under control.
Stepping on ‘Intellectual Toes’
Throughout his career, Professor Mundell frequently battled with the giants of the profession, including Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago and Martin Feldstein of Harvard. But he also craved recognition and welcomed the prestige — and the $1 million award — that the Nobel Prize conferred.
In his 2006 interview, he said that winning the Nobel “was particularly pleasing to me as my work has been quite controversial and no doubt stepped on a lot of intellectual toes.”
He added: “Even more than that, when I say something, people listen. Maybe they shouldn’t, but they do.”
At the Nobel banquet, Professor Mundell, dressed in white tie and tails and accompanied by Ms. Natsios-Mundell and their 2-year-old son, Nicholas, ended his speech by serenading the surprised but delighted guests with a verse from Frank Sinatra’s signature song.
Of the 1,300 Paycheck Protection Program loans that Southern Bancorp made last year, many went to customers who had been turned away by larger banks, Mr. Williams said.
In a recent Federal Reserve survey, nearly 80 percent of small-business owners who are Black or of Asian descent said their companies were in weak financial shape, compared with 54 percent of white business owners. And Black owners face unique challenges. While owners from all other demographics told the Fed that their main problem at the moment was low customer demand, Black respondents cited a different top challenge: access to credit.
When Jenell Ross, who runs an auto dealership in Ohio, sought a Paycheck Protection Program loan, her longtime bank told her to look elsewhere — a message that large banks like Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo delivered to many of their customers in the program’s frenzied early days.
Days later, she obtained a loan from Huntington Bank, a regional lender, but the experience stung.
“Historically, access to capital has been the leading concern of women- and minority-owned businesses to survive, and during this pandemic it has been no different,” Ms. Ross, who is Black, told a House committee last year.
Community groups step in
Community lenders and aid organizations took a shoe-leather approach to filling the gaps.
Last year, the American Business Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group, worked with local nonprofits to create a “community navigator” program that sent outreach workers to Black, minority and rural businesses in Florida, Illinois, South Carolina and Texas. They plowed through roadblocks, Whac-a-Mole-style.
Language barriers were common. Many business owners had never sought a bank loan before. Several didn’t have an email address and needed help creating one. Some hadn’t filed taxes; the coalition hired two accountants to help people sort out their financials.
“Our folks literally went door to door and walked people through the process,” said Rebecca Shi, the group’s executive director. “It’s time-consuming.”
Until recently, Bill Hwang sat atop one of the biggest — and perhaps least known — fortunes on Wall Street. Then his luck ran out.
Mr. Hwang, a 57-year-old veteran investor, managed $10 billion through his private investment firm, Archegos Capital Management. He borrowed billions of dollars from Wall Street banks to build enormous positions in a few American and Chinese stocks. By mid-March, Mr. Hwang was the financial force behind $20 billion in shares of ViacomCBS, effectively making him the media company’s single largest institutional shareholder. But few knew about his total exposure, since the shares were mostly held through complex financial instruments, called derivatives, created by the banks.
That changed in late March, after shares of ViacomCBS fell precipitously and the lenders demanded their money. When Archegos couldn’t pay, they seized its assets and sold them off, leading to one of the biggest implosions of an investment firm since the 2008 financial crisis.
Almost overnight, Mr. Hwang’s personal wealth shriveled. It’s a tale as old as Wall Street itself, where the right combination of ambition, savvy and timing can generate fantastic profits — only to crumble in an instant when conditions change.
in a 2019 speech. “I couldn’t go to school that much, to be honest.”
Grace and Mercy Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that sponsors Bible readings and religious book clubs, growing it to $500 million in assets from $70 million in under a decade. The foundation has donated tens of millions of dollars to Christian organizations.
“He’s giving ridiculous amounts,” said John Bai, a co-founder and managing partner of the equity research firm Fundstrat Global Advisors, who has known Mr. Hwang for roughly three decades. “But he’s doing it in a very unassuming, humble, non-boastful way.”
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But in his investing approach, he embraced risk and his firm ran afoul of regulators. In 2008, Tiger Asia lost money when the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy at the peak of the financial crisis. The next year, Hong Kong regulators accused the fund of using confidential information it had received to trade some Chinese stocks.
In 2012, Mr. Hwang reached a civil settlement with U.S. securities regulators in a separate insider trading investigation and was fined $44 million. That same year, Tiger Asia pleaded guilty to federal insider-trading charges in the same investigation and returned money to its investors. Mr. Hwang was barred from managing public money for at least five years. Regulators formally lifted the ban last year.
ViacomCBS announced plans to sell new shares to the public, a deal it hoped would generate $3 billion in new cash to fund its strategic plans. Morgan Stanley was running the deal. As bankers canvassed the investor community, they were counting on Mr. Hwang to be the anchor investor who would buy at least $300 million of the shares, four people involved with the offering said.
But sometime between the deal’s announcement and its completion that Wednesday morning, Mr. Hwang changed plans. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but RLX, the Chinese e-cigarette company, and GSX, the education company, had both spiraled in Asian markets around the same time. His decision caused the ViacomCBS fund-raising effort to end with $2.65 billion in new capital, significantly short of the original target.
ViacomCBS executives hadn’t known of Mr. Hwang’s enormous influence on the company’s share price, nor that he had canceled plans to invest in the share offering, until after it was completed, two people close to ViacomCBS said. They were frustrated to hear of it, the people said. At the same time, investors who had received larger-than-expected stakes in the new share offering and had seen it fall short, were selling the stock, driving its price down even further. (Morgan Stanley declined to comment.)
By Thursday, March 25, Archegos was in critical condition. ViacomCBS’s plummeting stock price was setting off “margin calls,” or demands for additional cash or assets, from its prime brokers that the firm couldn’t fully meet. Hoping to buy time, Archegos called a meeting with its lenders, asking for patience as it unloaded assets quietly, a person close to the firm said.
Those hopes were dashed. Sensing imminent failure, Goldman began selling Archegos’s assets the next morning, followed by Morgan Stanley, to recoup their money. Other banks soon followed.
As ViacomCBS shares flooded onto the market that Friday because of the banks’ enormous sales, Mr. Hwang’s wealth plummeted. Credit Suisse, which had acted too slowly to stanch the damage, announced the possibility of significant losses; Nomura announced as much as $2 billion in losses. Goldman finished unwinding its position but did not record a loss, a person familiar with the matter said. ViacomCBS shares are down more than 50 percent since hitting their peak on March 22.
Mr. Hwang has laid low, issuing only a short statement calling this a “challenging time” for Archegos.
Last fall, after some of the restrictions had eased in Germany, Trivago, a travel company based in Düsseldorf, let employees work remotely three weeks of the month and then spend one week in the office. The office weeks were designed for collaboration and were treated like celebrations, with balloons hanging from the ceilings and employees plied with coffee and muffins, said Anja Honnefelder, the chief people officer and general counsel of the company.
But the experiment failed, she said. “We saw that many of the people only came back for two or three days during the week because it felt unnatural, all of the social interactions,” said Ms. Honnefelder, who described her staff as young and made up largely of software engineers and data scientists. “They felt like they couldn’t get their work done and that it was disorienting.”
So, in January, Trivago announced that employees would come back to the office two days a week, but it has not been able to implement the plan because Germany has imposed new restrictions because of a rise in coronavirus cases.
“What we think will happen is that employees will use the two days to socialize, have extended lunches and work with their teams because they know, for the rest of the week, they will have time to focus and manage their own work and not be distracted,” Ms. Honnefelder said.
The ability to focus on work without distractions from other employees is the main reason Mr. Jaakola, the Minneapolis software engineer, does not want to return to the office. He admits he finds dealing with other people kind of “draining,” and hopes his company won’t force him to return to the office, even for a few days a week.
“My sense is that my company will try to go back to how things were before and I think they’ll quickly realize there are a lot of remote possibilities out there for us,” he said. “If they try to force us to come in without a legitimate reason, I can get another job if I don’t want to come in.”
Gillian Friedman and Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.
SHANGHAI — To defend against accusations by Washington and others that it doesn’t play fair on trade, Beijing could point to the banks. Chinese leaders have been steadily lowering the barriers they had erected around the country’s vast financial system, giving Wall Street and European lenders a greater shot at winning business in the world’s second-largest economy.
Now the walls are going up again.
New Chinese rules have sharply limited the ability of foreign banks to do business there, making them less competitive against local rivals, according to three people with knowledge of the directives. One set of rules enacted in December and January restricts how much money foreign banks can transfer into China from overseas. Another that took effect on Wednesday required many foreign banks to make fewer loans and sell off bonds and other investments, two of the people said.
The new rules have caused a stir among the global bank executives and foreign companies in China that depend on those lenders for money, the people said. Among other concerns, they worry that the rules could make foreign-owned businesses more dependent on China’s state-run banking system for the money they need to grow. That dependence could give Beijing another potential pressure point to use as it squares off against Washington and others over trade, human rights, geopolitics and other sticky issues.
Banks and trade groups have been reluctant to speak publicly for fear of triggering further regulatory measures. But in a January letter to China’s central bank that was reviewed by The New York Times, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China raised concerns about the money transfer limits.
encouraged boycotts of foreign businesses like H&M, the Swedish retailer, and Nike, the American athletic brand, after they vowed not to use cotton made by forced labor in Xinjiang.
The reasons behind China’s new banking rules aren’t clear, though they appear to have little to do with the tense political environment. They seem to be aimed instead at stemming big, potentially disruptive flows of money into the country.
surpassed the United States last year by taking in $163 billion worth of direct investments in factories, office buildings, companies and other assets.
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Big money flows into a country can also make its currency rise in value — and China appears to working hard to counter that.
China’s currency, the renminbi, rose sharply in value against the U.S. dollar in the second half of last year. In May, $1 was worth about 7.15 renminbi. By year’s end, $1 bought about 6.5 renminbi. That rise was bad news for China’s exporters because it made their goods less competitive overseas.
But since the Chinese government enacted its new banking rules, the currency has begun to weaken. It now stands at about 6.6 renminbi to the dollar.
The new rules alone aren’t likely significant enough to account for the sudden halt to the renminbi’s rise. But they join other moves made by the Chinese government in recent months that have made moving money into China slightly harder and moving it out slightly easier. Combined, they could put pressure on the renminbi to weaken.
“This has started since last October, and they are all on the same side,” said Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University.
Outside factors have likely contributed to the renminbi’s shift, including the resurgence of the U.S. economy, which could lead investors to steer their money there instead.
Chinese officials have stressed in recent months that their country is open to foreign investment, particularly banking.
“The inflow of foreign capital is inevitable, but so far, the scale and speed are still within our control,” Guo Shuqing, the chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, which has worked closely with the central bank on the new policies, said during a news conference on March 2. “We continue to encourage foreign financial institutions to enter China for shared development.”
In an unsuccessful attempt to head off a trade war with the Trump administration, China gradually relaxed or removed limits on foreign banks, insurers and money management firms. Big banks responded by expanding their mainland operations, including Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and UBS.
The global financial environment has encouraged money flows into China. With near zero interest rates elsewhere, international banks borrowed cheaply abroad. Until the new rules kicked in, they could send that money to China and lend or invest it there, reaping higher returns.
The first of the new rules, issued in a memo to banks in December, appeared to be aimed at that trend. That rule limited the ability of global banks to raise money overseas and move it into China. The rule is being phased in through November but was written in a way that has already had a big effect on financial contracts involving bets on the renminbi’s direction, said the people familiar with the notice.
Another measure communicated directly by Chinese regulators to foreign banks three weeks ago concerned the size of bank balance sheets, two of the people said.
Concerned about the rapid growth of credit in the Chinese economy, regulators ordered domestic and foreign banks to limit their balance sheets by Wednesday night to show only slight growth from last year. Because China has recently loosened limits on foreign purchases of bonds, many foreign banks had been buying more bonds for sale to foreign customers, expanding their balance sheets.
The full impact of the new rules will depend on how long they stay in place. Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University economist, predicted that China would eventually resume opening up to foreign financial institutions.
“They don’t want to scare off foreign investors in the medium to long term,” he said.