The headquarters of investment bank JPMorgan at Chater House in Hong Kong. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)The headquarters of investment bank JPMorgan at Chater House in Hong Kong. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

Two of the biggest global banks, HSBC and Citigroup, announced they are under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for candidate hiring practices.

It’s believed that the investigations focus on the banks’ hiring of so-called princelings, or children of state-owned enterprises or government officials, in Asia. Companies have used this practice to curry favors with local politicians or business executives in order to win business, mostly in China.

Such probes into a widespread industry practice have long been expected, but they serve to further crimp the competitiveness of Western banks in an increasingly difficult market.

HSBC and Citigroup are not the only banks under inquiry. Goldman Sachs, UBS, and Credit Suisse have also received letters from the SEC seeking information related to hiring practices in Asia. The practice is widespread beyond the banking sector, as chipmaker Qualcomm last year was also investigated for hiring princelings in China.

Last November, New York-based JP Morgan Chase agreed to pay $264 million to settle U.S. probes into its hiring of princelings of well-connected officials and executives in China. JP Morgan was the first company to settle with U.S. authorities over hiring practices in China.

HSBC disclosed on its earnings call on Feb. 22 that the impact of ongoing SEC investigation and possible resolution could be “significant.”

‘Quid Pro Quo’

“JP Morgan engaged in a systematic bribery scheme by hiring children of government officials and other favored referrals who were typically unqualified for the positions,” said Andrew Ceresney, Director of the SEC Enforcement Division in a statement after the JP Morgan settlement.

According to Department of Justice records, JP Morgan bankers kept a spreadsheet to track the hiring of princelings, including their relationship to new business. An email from a Hong Kong banker—who copied then-head of JP Morgan’s Asia-Pacific investment banking—even inquired upon how to “get the best quid pro quo” deal from the parents of such princelings.

Amongst the hirings probed by regulators was Tang Xiaoning, the son of the chairman at China Everbright Group, a state-owned financial services holding for which JP Morgan was in initial talks for IPO issuance and other possible deals.

It’s a thin tightrope for banks. Investment banking is a relationship business, and the business culture in Asia emphasizes personal relationships, or “guanxi” in Chinese. In some cases, JP Morgan was on the receiving end of referral requests to hire such princelings by senior executives at existing clients, according to Department of Justice records.

Global investment banks were quick to rush into the Chinese market without the opportunity to build a solid foundation—cultivated over years of relationships.

The “quid pro quo” evidenced in the myriad JP Morgan emails obtained by regulators seemed shallow and lacked the presence of real “guanxi.” JP Morgan was far from the first bank to use its princeling hires as leverage. According to a Bloomberg report, JP Morgan ramped up its hiring program after the bank lost a key deal to competitor Deutsche Bank in 2009 because the client’s chairman’s daughter had worked for Deutsche.

It’s not hard to see how “quid pro quo” deals could be tempting for global banks operating in an often-inhospitable market. Banking is a protected core industry to the Chinese Communist Party, and Western banks have been losing market share to domestic Chinese competitors over the last decade. Advisors to companies raising capital often come across sensitive corporate financial data—information Beijing may not want foreign banks to witness.

Take a quick glance at investment banking league tables and it’s evident that foreign banks face an uphill battle in China. Many Western investment banks are retrenching their business in China. Among the top equities advisors in Asia-Pacific (excluding Japan), China International Capital Corp. is No. 1 and Goldman Sachs is the only non-Chinese bank among the top five bookrunners, according to Dealogic. And no foreign bank resides among the top five Chinese onshore debt advisors.

Why Is Hiring Princelings a Crime?

It’s common for U.S. corporations to hire the sons or daughters of American politicians and business executives. American universities also compete to admit the children of powerful politicians, business executives, and celebrities—with the hope of winning business, in their case fully paid tuition bills and possible donations.

But it seems companies operating in emerging markets face greater scrutiny over corruption. The ongoing SEC investigations and settlements reached so far are related to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which bar U.S. corporations from engaging in bribery overseas.

“The FCPA prohibit … authorization of the payment of money or anything of value to any person while knowing that all or a portion of such money or thing of value will be offered, given or promised directly or indirectly to a foreign official to influence… or to secure any improper advantage in order to assist in obtaining or retaining business for or with or directing business to any person,” according to the Department of Justice.

The regulators interpret the hirings of princelings to be bribes (thing of value) to Chinese officials in order to directly curry favors and win business.

In the most public case—JP Morgan—the bank’s hiring of princelings clearly wasn’t just a one-off idea or the under-the-table strategy of one department. The bank seemed to run a well-orchestrated but unfortunately named “Sons and Daughters” program. The plan was documented and recorded within memos and tracked on spreadsheets, and its specific goal was hiring princelings to win new business.

That is the difference between a “wink wink nod nod” arrangement and a documented program. And it came at a cost of $264 million to JP Morgan shareholders.

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A Bank of China branch in the City of London May 13, 2016. Bank of China is one of a number of Chinese banks looking to expand their presence abroad. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)A Bank of China branch in the City of London May 13, 2016. Bank of China is one of a number of Chinese banks looking to expand their presence abroad. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In an effort to curb runaway real estate prices, major banks in Australia—a popular destination for Chinese real estate investors—have stopped lending to foreign property buyers without domestic income.

Enter Bank of China, China Construction Bank, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Chinese purchases of Australian real estate barely skipped a beat, as local branches of Chinese banks have stepped in to fill the gap.

Chinese banks are following their corporate and retail clients by expanding abroad, bucking a global banking industry trend of retrenching.

However, compliance and regulatory obstacles could slow their ambitions. And despite recent gains, their overall global footprint is unlikely to challenge current market leaders in the near future.

According to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce, China’s outward direct investment (ODI) rose to $103 billion between January and July 2016, a 61.8 percent increase from the same period last year.

The United States and Germany were the most popular destinations for Chinese foreign investment, driven by major corporate mergers and acquisitions.

Chinese domestic banks are attempting to ride this wave. At the end of 2015, more than 20 Chinese banking organizations had set up 1,300 locations across 59 countries and territories, according to data from Bank of China.

“Chinese banks’ overseas loans increased by more than $600 billion since 2010 to reach near $1 trillion at the end of 2015, and are likely to grow further with the government’s support for companies’ ‘go global’ policies,” wrote the IMF in an August report “China’s Growing Influence on Asian Financial Markets.”

China_Banks_Deploy

China outward direct investment (ODI). (Source: IMF)

China Construction Bank, its second-largest bank by assets, is looking to expand its footprint from 24 to 40 countries and increase foreign contribution of pretax profit from 1.7 percent as of 2015 to 5 percent by 2020, according to its Chairman in a recent speech in Hong Kong.

Among its peers, Bank of China has the biggest foreign operation, contributing to 23 percent of its pretax profit last year.

Bucking a Trend

Chinese banks are pivoting abroad while established global banks are scaling back.

Ten years ago, New York-based Citigroup Inc. had a retail presence spanning 50 countries from Tokyo to Madrid serving almost 270 million people globally. But profit and regulatory pressures have caused the bank to close or divest operations in more than half of those locations, including Turkey, Guatemala, and Japan.

The retrenching at Citi, HSBC, and other global banks has been quick and dramatic. The goal is to get leaner by focusing on the most profitable customers such as high-net-worth individuals and multinational corporations.

That has also been a goal of Chinese banks—as wealthy consumers and both private and state-owned companies look for foreign assets, the banks have been there to lend.

There’s also a political component to the expansion. China’s state-directed “One Belt, One Road” initiative have forced Chinese banks to enter emerging markets in the Middle East and West Asia where the banks otherwise wouldn’t venture. That’s a major reason the “big five” Chinese banks have been ahead of smaller banks in expanding abroad.

Regulatory Push Back

Chinese banks’ activities are coming under increasing scrutiny, especially in Australia where they’ve exported the hyper lending that fueled China’s real estate bubble.

Chinese banks have financed the majority of recent Chinese purchases of property and corporations in Australia. Loans originated by Australian branches of Chinese banks increased at four times the rate of growth for loans originated nationally during the first quarter of 2016, according to Australian government data. This has prompted regulators to warn that such rapid expansion by foreign lenders could become a systemic threat to the Australia’s financial system.

“One is duty bound to observe that there is a history of foreign players expanding aggressively in the upswing only to have to retreat quickly when more difficult times come,” Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glenn Stevens said in a speech in Sydney in March. Stevens did not single out China specifically.

Lack of controls adhering to the more stringent foreign regulatory framework is another common risk facing Chinese banks with overseas aspirations. The U.S. Federal Reserve last month ordered the New York branch of the Agricultural Bank of China to improve its anti-money-laundering (AML) infrastructure after examiners found “significant deficiencies” in its AML controls.

While the Fed did not specify what the violations were, the regulator said on Sept. 29 that it had found major flaws in risk management — monitoring and combating illicit banking transactions — at the bank’s local branch.

Agricultural Bank of China is the latest example of Chinese bank having difficulties with U.S. AML and know-your-client rules. The Fed gave similar warnings last year to Bank of China and China Construction Bank regarding AML procedures.

And there’s reason for the heightened scrutiny. Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based financial industry watchdog, estimated that between 2004 and 2013 China was the world’s biggest source of illicit monetary outflows, according to Reuters. China accounted for about 28 percent of the $4.9 trillion in illicit funds moving from the world’s ten biggest economies.

China’s “Big Five” banks are approaching 10 trillion yuan in combined overseas assets.

Minding the Gap

Despite the challenges, China’s “Big Five” banks are approaching 10 trillion yuan ($1.5 trillion) in combined overseas assets for the first time.

But they still lag behind their global peers in many respects and have inadequate business models. “The over reliance on interest income [at Chinese banks] as a profit model most definitely requires change,” according to a joint PwC-Renmin University study on internationalization of banks.

Currently, Chinese banks provide a financial support network for Chinese businesses and nationals in overseas markets, especially as Chinese companies need to transfer cash to make acquisitions abroad or invest in local R&D.

The banks generally focus on commercial and merchant banking, and do not offer a full product suite including asset management or investment banking like their international peers. As more countries and organizations use the yuan to settle payments, Chinese banks’ overseas influence and product portfolio could grow.

That’s the easy part. But Chinese banks lack the single most important element for any bank’s success: trust.

Major Chinese banks answer to the Chinese Communist Party, not its customers. Their systems and processes are often archaic. For political reasons, state-owned lenders eschew global industry-leading software for homegrown systems. Risk management and corporate governance is often lax.

For Chinese banks, the business framework for global expansion is in place. The trust? Not so much.

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