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Fed Clears Way for Chinese Firms to Buy US Banks

For the first time in its history the Federal Reserve gave the thumbs upto an acquisition of a U.S. bank by a Chinese bank, opening the door for other Chinese banks to follow suit.

Pedestrians walk past a branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in central Beijing.
Teh Eng Koon |AFP | Getty Images
Pedestrians walk past a branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in central Beijing.

“It is a signal the Fed has gotten comfortable with Chinese banks,” said Fred Cannon, Keefe Bruyette and Woods Director of Research.

The central bank approved the application by China’s largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China Investment Corp. (CIC)and Central Huijin Investment Ltd, to buy 80 percent of the voting shares of The Bank of East Asia.

The Bank of East Asia is based in New York City and has $780 million in assets. Through the acquisition, ICBC, CIC and Huijin both of which hold stakes in ICBC, will become bank holding companies here in the U.S. with their U.S. operations subject to Fed supervision.

Attorney Rodgin Cohen, a partner in Sullivan and Cromwell who advised The Bank of East Asia on the deal and whose firm also represented CIC, noted it is the first time the Fed has said a Chinese bank is subject to “comprehensive consolidated supervision.” In laymen’s terms, this means the Fed believes oversight by the Chinese banking regulators has improved enough to be considered in keeping with global standards. Cohen said once this term is applied to one Chinese bank it is likely to be applied to other, similarly situated Chinese banks.

ICBC is China’s largest banks with $2.5 trillion in assets. It is 70 percent owned by the Chinese government through CIC, the country’s sovereign wealth fund and Huijin, a government run entity set up to invest in Chinese financial firms. In the increasingly overlapping world of banking, New York based Goldman Sachs owns a stake in ICBC while CIC owns a stake in New York based Morgan Stanley .

As for the impact on the U.S. banking industry, Cohen said he “doesn’t expect to see a wave of acquisitions by Chinese banks.” Cohen said it is more likely Chinese banks will expand their U.S footprints by modest acquisitions of with under $2 billion in assets in metropolitian areas where there are large Chinese communities.

Cannon concurred, noting the entry of Chinese participants is an “incremental positive” for mergers and acquisitions activity in the small to mid-sized bank space. Cannon expects Chinese banks to focus on buying U.S banks that can enhance trade between the two countries, adding we are still a “long way” from a Chinese bank buying a large American bank.

-By CNBC's Mary Thompson
Follow Mary Thompson on Twitter: MThompsonCNBC

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