Friday, February 4, 2011

Ni Hao, would you like to open an account ?

When Hu Jintao, the leader of China, visited Washington recently, there was a flurry of deals signed. Predictably, most were economic. One tiny deal, lost from the public glare may be far more important than most of the bigger ones signed amidst much fanfare. This was the acquisition by ICBC, the world's most valuable bank from China, of the tiny retail network of the Bank of East Asia in New York and California.

All bank takeovers in the US need regulatory approval. Given the circumstances under which this deal was signed, its expected that it would be approved. And therein lies the breakthrough.

The regulatory approval is given only if the US believes that the regulatory mechanism in the home country of the bank is "sound". This is classical American overreach of dictating to the world. Now if this deal is to be approved, that is a tacit endorsement of China's banking system, which is entirely state controlled and , to even the most neutral of observers, dodgy. America endorsing China's banking system ? Wow !

There is an even more interesting consequence at the China end. It is the placement of the regulatory powers of a China bank's operations, in the hands of the US regulatory authorities. Yes its only a tiny insignificant branch of the giant ICBC. But then America's regulators never stop at its nations shores. For the Communist Party to accept that, takes some doing.

You can see why both the countries chose a tiny insignificant deal to test the way forward. If it had been a large deal in the public glare, you can imagine the howls of protest in the US against letting China in. Equally so , behind closed doors of the Communist Party's politburo, of submitting to any form of regulation by outsiders. Best to wade through this in an insignificant deal. And then slowly inch your way forward.

America and China are learning to tango. Uncomfortably, but out of sheer necessity. Both would rather not do this. But there isn't a choice. So its an awkward dance , trying not to step on each others' toes. A tall order given that neither has learnt the steps and are too proud to practice. It will be nice watching the dance - we from India being the underaged kid, not allowed into the party, but sneaking in to watch the goings on.

The dance may be awkward, but getting customers to walk in to the branch in New York may be more awkward. Can't imagine Joe the Plumber resonate to the sounds of huan ying guang lin (welcome). But then they won't go after those sort. There are enough Chinese Americans in that land. The NBA all star voting has just finished. Guess who the starting centre for the West is ? Yao Ming. Never mind that he has been injured for a long time and won't play, probably for ever.