There are two ways to look at foreign investment in the United States. It may be good, because it brings with it money and often jobs. But it may be bad, because it means foreigners control or at least influence U.S. markets and affect U.S. lives.
Foreign investment in banking raises even more questions. Banking in an international industry, and New York vies with London for the title fo the biggest international banking center which naturally attracts foreigners.
But the U.S. banking industry is also one of the most regulated and least centralized in the world. And this can give a critical advantage to foreigners who want to come into the U.S. market.
A rash of foreign purchases of U.S. banks prompted Congress to call a three-month halt to such takeovers earlier this year, and a House Banking subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.), will convene in 10 days on whether to reimpose the moratorium. A GAO report to Congress last month recommended that the moratorium be reinstituted.
Foreign participation in U.S. banking -- through subsidiaries of overseas banks or foreign purchases of U.S. banks -- is not a new phenomenon. In spite of the rash of foreign purchases of U.S. banks, foreign bankers even now have more of the U.S. assets in branches and agencies of overseas banks than in the home-grown banks that they have bought.
But takeovers of U.S. banks by invetors from overseas gradually became the most important mode of foreign entry into the U.S. banking market during the 1970s. Since 1972, according to Federal Reserve Board, foreign acquisitions of U.S. banks have outnumbered new subsidiaries set up by overseas owners by 3 to 1.
In the last 10 years, foreigners have bought about 90 U.S. banks, the majority of them small banks snapped up by righ individuals.
But what has upset many people recently is that foreigners have gone, in some notable cases, for much larger banks than before. A few days after the moratorium ended in July, the British Midland Bank announced a bid for Crocker National Bank of California. Crocker's worldwide assets totaled $16.3 billion and its domestic assets, $14.2 billion at the end of March, according to the Federal Reserve Board.
Designated by the Fortune 500 list as the 14th-largest banking company in the nation at the end of last year, Crocker will become the biggest U.S. bank ever bought by foreign interests if the merger goes ahead.
One of the sparks that produced the first mortorium was the overseas purchase of a controlling stake in Marine Midland Bank, a large New York bank holding company with a virtual monopoly in much of upstate New York. It was the 15th-ranking U.S. bank last year arnd much larger than any other foreign acquisition in the banking world.
Foreigners now own approximately 12 percent of U.S. banking assets, according to the Federal Reserve Board study. Other estimates vry from 9 percent up to as much as 14 percent, depending on precisely how the assets are calculated and whether holding companies are included.
Branches and agencies of foreign banks have about 300 offices across the nation and approximately $140 billion assets in the United States. Assets of their U.S. subsidiaries total between a third and a half as that. The latter fall into two categories: new banks set up by foreigners her eand home-grown U.S. banks that have been bought from overseas. To complicate matters further, the "de novo" banks have themselves often bought up U.S.-owned banks.
For foreigners, what is the big attraction of taking over a U.S. bank? John Heimann, Comptroller of the Currency, said that at the moment, it is just one of the quickest and easiest ways of getting into the market. A U.S. bank will have a ready-made deposit base, saving the foreign bank from building up from scratch.
He believes that overseas banks are moving into the United States for much the same reasons that touched off U.S. expansion in overseas banking in the 1950s and 1960s. First and foremost, bankers follow traders. As foreign companies become established here, foreign banks have followed them. This is especially marked in the large Japanese banking presence in the United States.
On the whole, foreigners here lend money "wholesale" on the money markets rather than having "retail" operations with branch offices and with individuals and small companies as customers.
Growing foreign communities here also have encouraged the establishment of retail banks to serve them. Several Israel banks have applied for Federal insurance to allow them to take personal deposits. The last five years have seen a huge growth in Spanish banks in the United States.
The size of the U.S. market and its reputation as a "bastion of the Free World" also play a part in bringing bankers here from abroad.As banking becomes a bigger business with bigger risks, so expansion becomes more important for survival.
Foreigners' share of the banking market here -- still largely confined to California, New York and Illinois -- are still not as big as the U.S. share of some overseas markets, Heimann said.He pointed out that, for example, U.S. banks now control about one-third of the large offshore Euro-currency market in London.
The GAO report said, "Those in and familiar with the U.S. banking industry agree that the level of foreign control of U.S. banking assets is not of immediate concer," but "should foreign banking continue to increase in the United States, particularly through the acquisition of existing U.S. banks," foreign control could become "too high."
Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corp., a Hong Kong-based British colonial bank, succeeded in buying 51 pecent of Maine Midland this year despite opposition to the deal from New York state banking superintendent Muriel Siebert. The opposition was circumvented when Maine Midland converted from a state to a national chapter, thus removing itself from Siebert's authority. Heimann was sympathetic to the takeover.
Siebert had qualms about the Marine-Hong Kong deal. "Our banks cannot buy a large bank abroad. If it's not actually a written policy, then it's a matter of 'don't be ridiculous,' she said last week.
"Why don't they allow us to buy their banks?" she asked rhetorically, suggesting that our countries may have good reasons for preferring to keep such an important part of the economy under domestic control.
Other worries about growing foreign banking interests in the United States concern differing practices here and overseas about the all-important issue of disclosure and about the overlap of banking and commercial interests.
U.S. banks have to reveal many more of their secrets than do many of those in other countries. British banks, for example, often put a certain amount of money aside to cover loans which may be bad. The amount of these special reserves is a secret, and switches into and out of them can alter significantly a bank's apparent profits.
Federal regulators say that they can get hold of as much information as they need in any particular case, and since any takeover must be approved by U.S. regulators, there are unlikely to be problems determining if foreign bank are "safe and sound." Others are less sure that the U.S. authorities can prevent having the wool pulled over their eyes.
Banking and commerce do not mix in the United States, but they do in many other countries. There are now some controls over what sort of interests the foreign branches and subsidiaries of foreign banks may have here. But they still allow a large foreign bank which, for example, is tied overseas to a steel company to set up in business here even if the steel company also has a U.S. operation.
What is more, U.S. authorities clearly cannot tell foreigners how to conduct their business overseas. But Heimann believes that, provided the U.S. rule govern how foreign banks operate here, the two systems "can exist side by side." The alternative -- keeping out foreign banks -- is "clearly not a goal to be sought," he said.
A cornerstone of the U.S. banking system is the fact that small local banks are encouraged and protected by law. They are thought to serve the interests of their communities more reliably than large, more centralized banks. Siebert also was very concerned that Marine Midland's traditional customers in the smaller cities and towns of upstate New York might be ignored by its new foreign owners.
Paradoxically, the laws that control the growth of U.S. banks and make for nearly 14,500 large, medium and small banks in the nation also discriminate in favor of foreigners. Heimann points out that part of the rash of foreign takeovers springs from the fact that U.S. banks cannot compete.
The MacFadden Act of 1927 and the Douglas amendment to it effectively prohibit U.S. banks and bank holding companies from operating across state lines. These limits effectively tied the hands of U.S. banks that might otherwise have wanted to buy Crocker, Midland or any number of other banks.
Other state laws and practices limit expansion within a state. New York City banks, for example, generally have not been allowed to buy upstate banks. Although this has been relaxed a little over the years, they still are not able to buy large banks.
Siebert commented that this might have to change after the Marine Midland deal. If she does approve the next application from a major New York City bank to buy upstate, the local banks there "will scream and holler," she predicted.
Before the International Banking Act of 1978, foreigners could branch across state lines with few restrictions, although there were strict limits on hows many deposits they could take. Although this now has been modified, the foreign banks which already had a stake in several states haven been allowed to go on banking across state lines.
The fragmented U.S. banking market also helps foreign entrants, Heimann said. "It is much easier to position yourself as a newcomer in such a market than in one donimated by a few large banks" such as is common overseas.
The GAO bases its recommendation for another moratorium on the unequal treatment of foreign and U.S. banks. "The only way to be fair is to halt progress," is Heimann's response. Both he and the Fed believe that foreign entry into U.S. banking has boosted competition, and in many cases acquisitions have helped out banks that otherwise would have been in difficulty.
A fed study earlier this year of the effect of foreign acquistion on the performance of U.s. banks found that in 16 of the 24 cases it examined, the banks wee either unprofitable or had very low earnings just before purchase. A Fed paper prepared during the moratorium concluded that there had been "no systemtic harm to acquired U.S. banks, to their local communities, or to the U.S. economy . . . Bank competition has usually been enhanced by a foreign acquisition [as this typically brings a] new entrant and competitive force into the U.S. banking market."
But many of those who believe that foreigners should be allowed to come into the U.S. industry are also uncomfortable about the discrimination against U.S. banks abroad. "It is inconceivable that an American bank would be allowed into Europe, for example, to buy a major European bank which other local banks could not buy," commented one British banker who works in New York. "I think the opponents of foreign takeover here have a point."
But this banker blamed the "antiquated" laws that restrict U.S. banking across state lines rather than the ease of access granted to foreigners.
There is growing pressure for a change in the interstate banking rules for domestic banks. Already, ingenious bankers are making a mockery of the ban on interstate banking. To be sure they cannot take deposits in moe than one state, and deposit-taking is the key to banking. But as Heimann points out, the asset (or loans) side of many banks deposits are now only a relatively small part of their liabilities Only 20 percent of Citicorp's liabilities are deposits, for example.
"MacFadden and Douglas mean that here in the District many people who lives in Virginia or Maryland end up cashing checks at the liquor store," he said. it is "clearly expensive" [for banks to] "go through a song and dance not to break the law while still serving their customers."
Rep. Henry Reuss, chairman of the House Banking Committee, broadly agrees. He will oppose another moratorium on foreign takeovers on the grounds that it is an "arbitary" way to deal with the problem of unequal treatment. "It is a mistake to allow banking policy to be determined by how many salesmen take suitcses to out-of-state hotels," he said. Some "traveling bankers" now do business out of hotel rooms in states where they may not establish branches.
The White House is working on a proposal for Congress that probably will recommend a change in the Douglas Amendment to allow bank holding companies to acquire banks across state lines. Natural trading areas develop banks could give much better service to such areas than banks limited to one state only.
Such change has to come, most experst agree. But it will be "bloody and painful," according to Siebert. Local bankers have enormous influence in Congress and will resist changes that threaten their existence. And even many of those who can see the sense of across-the-nation banking worry about whether a Chase Manhatten or Bank America will really take care of the customers in far-flung local communities.
Their doubts about foreign-owned banks are all the greater and likely to persist in spite of studies produced that show the market benefiting from their presence. Meanwhile, as those still outside try to come in, the foreign bankers already here are tending to keep their heads down.
"We feel like the piggy in the middle," complained one who did not want to be identified last week.