Chinese banks eye Russian deals as US sanctions sour relations

Russia and China have been deepening economic ties in recent years, with trade between the two nations growing to US$89.2b last year

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:38am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 10:20am

Chinese banks could be beneficiaries of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, with pressure growing on European and US investment banks to stop dealing with Moscow.

Bankers say sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis are creating a situation similar to that in Iran, where Western banks and companies are effectively barred from doing business by regulators at home.

"We don't have any problem with Russia," said a senior executive with a mainland bank in Hong Kong, who declined to be named. "If American banks can't take any Russia-related clients, then I will definitely welcome them to do business with us."

We basically cannot touch anything that has relations with Russia
US investment banker

Last week, the United States froze assets and imposed visa bans on seven powerful Russians close to President Vladimir Putin, and also sanctioned 17 Russian companies in reprisal for Moscow's actions in Ukraine. US President Barack Obama said the moves, which add to measures taken when Russia annexed Crimea in March, were to stop Putin fomenting rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies it is doing so.

Financial industry sources told the South China Morning Post that several banks including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Barclays, have tightened their internal compliance measures on deals that may have direct or indirect relations to the Russian government or Russian companies.

US sanctions on Iran are so rigorous that banks routinely ask potential clients if they have any business activities in the country. If the answer is yes, the US bank may have to walk away from the deal even though the client is not an Iranian company.

Last year's planned Hong Kong listing by Chongqing Lifan Group, a major motorcycle manufacturer in China, suffered because of these rules.

Market sources say it was pitched by many US investment banks, but all dropped out once it was discovered that Lifan exported products to Iran.

Lifan instead turned to Asian investment banks, including Malaysia's CIMB and a clutch of mainland banks, to do the deal. The Malaysian and Chinese governments maintain diplomatic ties with Iran.

One banker, who declined to be identified, told the Post that internal compliance officers at his bank, a major American investment bank, had recently ruled against taking on a Chinese client for a capital market deal partly because the Chinese company previously exported its products to Russia.

"We used to have problems with clients that had any kind of ties with Iran, and now we basically cannot touch anything that has relations with Russia," the banker said.

Russia and China have been deepening economic ties in recent years. Trade between the two was worth US$89.2 billion in 2013, according to China Customs Administration data, the mainland's tenth biggest trade partnership.

Natural resources and infrastructure projects are a particular focus of the strengthening ties.

Late last year Russia struck a deal with China Development Bank, one of the three policy banks on the mainland, to fund large infrastructure projects in the Far East and southern Siberia which could be worth at least US$5 billion.

Meanwhile, Russia's state-backed Gazprom hopes to pump 38 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year to China starting in 2018.

The two nations are also working together, along with their BRICs partners - Brazil, India and South Africa - to set up a new bank modelled on the World Bank, to support their economic development.

Follow the reporter on Twitter: @george_chen