China's access to Wall Street may be next battlefront

BEIJING • US President Donald Trump's trade war with China has prompted a broad rethinking of how the two economies have become so intertwined, leading some manufacturers to trim supply chains in China and the American authorities to start cutting off crucial technology for Chinese firms.

Now another vital area is getting a close look: financial markets.

Some trade experts are discussing whether the White House should curb China's access to Wall Street. Chinese companies have raised tens of billions of dollars through American financial markets in recent years.

Mr Steve Bannon, Mr Trump's former chief strategist, said there were continuing efforts inside and outside the administration to rethink China's role in US stock markets, in part because of a lack of transparency about the ultimate owners of Chinese companies.

"The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq are breaching their fiduciary responsibility to institutional investors, the pension funds of hard-working Americans," Mr Bannon said. "It's outrageous. All of it should be shut down immediately."

Adding fuel to the discussion, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant that held a hugely successful initial public offering in New York five years ago, is now considering also listing its shares in Hong Kong, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person said the move was not under consideration because of geopolitical worries.

The outlook for the financial sector on both sides of the Pacific is starting to change, part of a broader decoupling between the two economies.

"There are growing calls on the US side for complete decoupling, which is causing Chinese enterprises to re-evaluate their reliance not just on US technology but also on other US resources, including financial markets," said Mr Andy Mok, a senior fellow at the Centre for China and Globalisation, a leading research group in Beijing.

Chinese companies continue to enjoy access to American markets. But scepticism is growing among some administration officials and legislators about the presence of Chinese companies on American capital markets.

In a letter last month, a bipartisan group of senators urged the administration to increase disclosure requirements for Chinese companies listed in the US that pose national security risks or are complicit in human rights abuses.

The letter named Hikvision, which the administration is considering blocking from purchasing America components over its role in the surveillance and mass detention of Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority. Hikvision investors have included UBS, JPMorgan and the public pension funds of teachers in California and New York.

"Americans would likely be very troubled... to learn that their retirement and other investment dollars are funding Chinese companies with links to the Chinese government's security apparatus and malevolent behaviour," the letter read.

If Washington did act, Beijing has its own way of striking back.

Chinese entities, mainly the country's central bank and sovereign wealth fund, own at least US$200 billion (S$276 billion) in shares in the US, giving Beijing a possible additional weapon should Chinese leaders decide to sell. Such a move could shake the American stock market. For many years, experts have also asked what might happen to the US economy should China suddenly dump much of the US$1.3 trillion it holds in US debt.

With the trade war going on, Mr Mok said Chinese companies are now more likely to think twice about depending on American financial markets. "There is no desire on the Chinese side for decoupling," he said, "but it is maybe a prudent management decision to reduce risk exposure."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2019, with the headline 'China's access to Wall Street may be next battlefront'. Print Edition | Subscribe