Lawmakers stay largely silent over Chinese takeover of US bank branches

U.S. lawmakers have been unusually silent about federal regulators’ decision to allow a Chinese bank to take over 13 bank branches in New York and California, suggesting that they think American banks have much to gain.

Members of both parties usually relish the chance to bash China on everything from government subsidies to the yuan’s exchange rate. Yet Wednesday’s decision by the Federal Reserve to certify a Chinese bank acquisition for the first time was met by near-universal silence.

{mosads}Scott Talbott, the head lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, said that’s unsurprising. The U.S. wants China to open up its financial services market – foreign ownership of Chinese banks is limited to 25 percent – and allowing a Chinese presence in the U.S. is seen as a necessary trade-off.

“What this boils down to is that there are a ton more potential customers in China for U.S. banks than there are potential customers for the Chinese here,” Talbott said. “So in the long run, the approval is going to benefit the U.S.”

Wednesday’s decision allows Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, which is 70 percent owned by the Chinese government, to take an 80 percent stake in a Hong Kong-based bank with 13 branches in the U.S. The Fed also allowed two other Chinese banks to open branches in New York and Chicago.

The decision came days after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner met with top Chinese officials for annual talks in Beijing. China agreed during those talks to allow foreigners a greater stake in Chinese brokerage firms.

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One of the very few lawmakers to speak out has been Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who has a separate beef with the Fed over monetary policy and is holding up two nominees to its board of governors. And even he limited his response to a Tweet – two days after the announcement.

“In midst of my dispute w/ Fed,” Vitter wrote on Twitter, “news they’re allowing China banks to takeover American financial institutes & enter banking market…bad news.”

The top Republican on the Senate banking panel’s subcommittee on economic policy expanded when pressed by The Hill.

“I think the Fed will have a difficult time explaining that allowing Chinese state-backed banks to takeover American banks is what our market needs,” he said in a statement. “They owe Congress an explanation of their decision and I plan on asking for it.”

Meanwhile in the House, the chairman of the Financial Services Committee’s panel on International Monetary Policy and Trade scheduled a hearing on the decision for Wednesday. But even that hearing aims to assess U.S. banks’ access to the Chinese market rather than criticize the Fed’s decision.

“I was very surprised by the Federal Reserve’s decision to open the doors to China’s banking system,” Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) told The Hill in a statement. “I have called a hearing of [my] subcommittee … because Congress needs to know if the Obama Administration is giving away the store in its negotiations with China. What I want to know is, do American banks have access to China’s markets? Are we giving Chinese banks better access than China gives American banks?”

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