Chinese Banks' Stealth U.S. Growth Plans Get Fed Backing

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - In what may prove to be an unheralded but game changing move earlier in May, the Federal Reserve approved plans by three of China's largest banks to establish bank branches in the U.S.

Although the Fed's approval gives China's three largest state-owned lenders to the opportunity to open banking outlets, investors and customers shouldn't expect branded banks and ATM's from the likes of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Instead, the decision may have the biggest impact on specialty commercial banking units at the nation's largest banks like JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), Citigroup ( C), Bank of America ( BAC) and Wells Fargo ( WFC).

On May 9, the Fed approved plans for ICBC to become a bank holding company in the U.S. and for Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China to open regional branches in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. That move allows the lenders to take traditional retail deposits and also establish a variety of commercial banking businesses used by corporate treasuries big and small. The Fed also approved ICBC's 80% stake in the U.S. subsidiary of Bank of East Asia, a Hong Kong listed lender with branches in New York and California.

"I think the competitive implications are enormous both in terms of the M&A market and the industry," says Gerard Comizio, a partner at Paul Hastings and the chairman of its Global Banking practice, who sees a prospect that Chinese banks scale deposits through acquisitions of regional lenders. The decision may also create a reciprocal ability for U.S. banks to bolster their investment in Chinese banking operations, adds Comizio. "My guess is you could see some interesting and surprising deals done in China soon."

Although the Fed's decision may pave the way for an eventual Chinese and U.S. bank M&A boom that will allow lenders on both sides of the Pacific greater access to potentially lucrative deposits, industry analysts see a much greater near-term impact on commercial banking businesses run by the largest banks in the U.S.

In fact, in spite of China's financial might, the Fed's decision may go unseen to depositors and ordinary banking customers in the U.S.

"For the average U.S. depositor or business owner, I don't think it's going to be something they notice," says Marty Mosby a banking analyst with Guggenheim Securities, even though he calls the decision "a watershed event." That's because the lenders may be most interested in using their charters to offer transaction and corporate banking services that will follow a natural flow of funds between U.S. and Chinese businesses, as trade between both countries continues to grow.

The three Chinese banks approved by the Fed are counted among the world's 20 largest banks, according to 2011 data from Global Finance. ICBC, which is China's largest bank with $2.5 trillion in deposits, is among the top 10 largest lenders and trumps JPMorgan's $2.3 trillion in deposits.

"When you start looking for institutional and corporate business, the Chinese banks will have insight into their own market that they can leverage off of the bat," adds Mosby, who says JPMorgan, Citigroup and Bank of America will be most impacted by the development, in addition to Wells Fargo at a smaller scale.

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