Politico

Trump administration considers hitting China’s Wall Street connections

The Trump administration is considering expanding its trade fight against China by targeting Beijing’s ties with Wall Street and American investors, according to two people familiar with internal discussions.

The measures being weighed would force Chinese companies to delist from U.S. stock exchanges if they don’t meet U.S. auditing requirements. The administration is also contemplating banning U.S. government pension funds from having investments in market indexes that list Chinese companies.

The measures have been in the early stages of consideration for at least a month as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have upped the pressure on the administration to take steps that would restrict China’s reach into U.S. capital markets, the people said.

“There’s political pressure for this to be done,” said one of the people, adding that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is emerging as a front-runner among Democratic presidential candidates, “could take this and run with it.”

Top U.S. officials are scheduled to hold a high-level meeting with their Chinese counterparts in early October.

China has made moves to build goodwill by agreeing to purchase U.S. agriculture goods again. But it’s still unclear if China is willing to meet U.S. demands on core concerns related to intellectual property, forced technology transfer, subsidies and other state-directed policies accused of ripping off U.S. innovation.

After numerous, bruising rounds of tariffs, the U.S. could have duties in place by the end of the year on almost all of the roughly $500 billion worth of goods it imports from China. Now, the administration now seems to be considering new ways to pressure China beyond tariffs.

The news that the administration is now considering capital measures was reported by Bloomberg on Friday, but people close to the administration have hinted for weeks that such actions were under consideration.

“We’re at very low levels of pressure compared to what could be done,” Michael Pillsbury, an outside adviser to Trump on China and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told POLITICO earlier this month.

Pillsbury described a measure the administration could take to eliminate waivers that allow Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to bypass auditing and financial disclosure requirements required for American firms. This could force major Chinese companies like Alibaba and Tencent off U.S. stock exchanges, he said.

“Steps that would inflict pain on China’s national champion companies might bring them around to a binding deal,” Pillsbury said.

There are 159 Chinese firms listed on U.S. stock exchanges, representing a total market capitalization of $1.1 trillion, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation in June that would force Chinese companies to disclose financial information the Chinese government blocks U.S. regulators from reviewing.

Rubio and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) also sent a letter in late August to Michael Kennedy, the chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, to reverse a decision that exposed $50 billion worth of U.S. government workers’ retirement assets to investments in Chinese firms.

The lawmakers said the decision exposed U.S. pension funds to Chinese companies involved in espionage, human rights abuses and Chinese industrial policies, like the “Made in China 2025″ initiative, that have been the target of the U.S. tariff actions.

“There are obvious problems that need to be urgently corrected given China’s policies, its use of all companies to achieve them regardless of ownership structure, and its lack of transparency around all such efforts,” said one of the people familiar with the discussions. “Folks have had blinders on for far too long, particularly Wall Street.”

The move could cause major disruptions as portfolio managers try to adjust to a possible ban and new regulations, said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group.

“My own guess is this is just a negotiating tactic from the White House aimed at ratcheting up the pressure on China and giving a tangible show of U.S. leverage ahead of the upcoming meeting in October,” he said.

Capital controls and restrictions could also make it more difficult for the two sides to reach a true deal.

“We don’t have confidence in China honoring a deal. China has no confidence in Trump; he appears to them as an unreliable moving target,” said David Kotok, chairman and chief investment officer at Cumberland Advisors. “My best guess is no real trade deal is possible for at least two years.“

Meanwhile, Beijing recently repeated its warning that a further decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies would be counterproductive.

During a speech this week to U.S. business executives on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China will continue efforts to open up its economy.

“Given the size of our economies and the level of interdependence, the so-called ‘decoupling‘ or ‘shutting the door to each other‘ is just like an attempt to build castles in the air,” he said. “It is neither sensible nor realistic.“

Ben White contributed to this report.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

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