Rich Chinese rush to get US investor visas before costs may soar

China’s wealthy, struggling to get cash out the country amid capital controls, are racing to apply for an investor programme as Congress mulls raising the funding needed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 10:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 March, 2017, 11:05pm

As members of Congress in Washington debate raising the minimum required to obtain a US immigrant investor visa from US$500,000 to US$1.35 million, concern about the rise has set off a scramble among wealthy would-be participants in China.

“Some clients are demanding that we make sure their applications are submitted before April 28”, the date the programme expires unless extended or amended by Congress, said Judy Gao, director of the US programme at Can-Reach (Pacific), a Beijing-based agency that helps with EB-5 Immigrant Investor visas. ”We’re working overtime to do that.“

China’s wealthy, using not-always-legal means to skirt capital controls to get their money out and at the same time gain residency in the US, are continuing to dwarf all others as the largest participants in the EB-5 programme, despite heightened measures by the Chinese government. 

The initiative channels money to high-profile US real estate projects from New York to Miami to California, including those by the family of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. 

A current plan by the Kushner family to refinance and reconstruct its New York office building at 666 Fifth Avenue is seeking US$850 million in EB-5 funding, as well as cash from Anbang Insurance Group and other investors, according to terms of the proposal. A spokesman for Kushner Cos declined to comment.

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At stake if the EB-5 is curtailed is a programme estimated to have played a role in creating at least 200,000 US jobs and drawing as much as US$14 billion from Chinese investors alone, based on data provided by Rosen Consulting Group and the Asia Society. Past projects taking advantage of EB-5 include New York’s Hudson Yards, Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco and a Trump-branded tower in Jersey City.

New projects recently doing the rounds in China’s chat rooms, web forums and hotel-ballroom investor seminars include a five-star hotel complex in Palm Springs, California, and what is touted as “the world’s tallest residential building”, on New York’s 57th Street, known as Billionaires’ Row.

Because Chinese individuals are limited to exchanging US$50,000 worth of yuan a year, a 10th of what the EB-5 programme requires, some agents are advising clients who do not already have assets offshore to use a means nicknamed “smurfing” to move their money.

“Our suggestion to the client is to open three to four personal accounts in the US or line up three to four friends’ accounts, so they can split the money and wire it to different personal accounts without being put on a blacklist by the Chinese authorities,” said a Shanghai-based real estate agent who did not give their full name. “It may require a trip to the States to do so to facilitate the process.”

While the government in Beijing spent much of last year working to stop its citizens sending money abroad in order to stabilise its declining currency and foreign reserves, Chinese investors’ use of EB-5 continued anyway, totaling US$3.8 billion in the fiscal year that ended September 30, according to data from the US State Department.

EB-5 started decades ago as a way to create jobs in needy US neighbourhoods by attracting foreign investment. But it has run into political opposition amid charges the programme is benefiting billionaire developers and being dominated by wealthy Chinese.

“EB-5 has been a key programme for capital flight that has been abused by Americans and Chinese people seeking to game the system,” said Andrew Collier, an independent analyst in Hong Kong and former president of Bank of China International USA.

While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by developers that receive funding from EB-5, a series of Securities and Exchange Commission cases against EB-5-linked immigrant investor centres led the US Citizenship and Immigration Services to announce last week that they would audit the centres amid concern about fraud.

Chinese investors, several thousand a year, have made up as much as 85 per cent of the annual EB-5 investor total, according to US data provided by Rosen Consulting and the Asia Society. China overtook Canada as the biggest foreign buyer of US homes in 2015.

Investment in an EB-5 project in New York, a hotel near Central Park, allowed Shanghai resident Kevin Tai to move to the US this month. He applied with his family for the investor visa at the end of 2013. Transferring more than US$50,000 abroad every year was also prohibited then, so to pony up the cash, Tai used his Shanghai home as collateral to secure a US$500,000 loan from Hang Seng Bank in Hong Kong, a faster route to securing cash than trying to get yuan over the border in batches. That route is now closed as well.

“I don’t recall what return rate they promoted because that doesn’t matter,” he said just before his departure. “For most EB-5 applicants like us, the purpose is to get a permanent green card.”

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The project in Palm Springs being promoted via messaging app WeChat by the real estate agent in Shanghai’s firm seeks Chinese EB-5 investors for a US$155 million hotel. It offers an unusually high expected annual return of 12 per cent. By fronting a minimum of US$500,000 for the 26-villa development, prospective investors become eligible to apply for a green card, the promotion says. 

The majority of EB-5 investments offer very low returns in the range of 0.25 per cent to 0.5 per cent, said Can-Reach’s Gao. 

The Central Park Tower project, now under construction by the New York-based luxury condo builder Extell Development Co, will reach 472 metres and house a Nordstrom department store as well as “ultra-luxury” residences, according to the architect’s website. A previous downtown New York condo project by Extell, One Manhattan Square, also received funds from EB-5 and initially targeted Asian buyers.

The latest Extell tower was pitched last year to packed rooms of investors in four Chinese cities: Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Nanjing. 

About 900 firms in China are registered to handle emigration and most of them offer EB-5 services. 

To be sure, the overall volume of money leaving China through the EB-5 channel is small, just half a per cent of the US$728 billion estimated by Standard Chartered to have flowed out in 2016.

While capital outflows have fallen sharply in recent months as regulators increase scrutiny and the yuan holds steady, analysts say there is pent up pressure to move money out of China.

That is why the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the currency regulator, has been closing loopholes that allow money to be illegally channelled overseas by seeking extra disclosure. Outflows moderated in February as foreign exchange reserves rose, reversing a seven-month losing streak. Restrictions include limits on overseas investments and acquisitions, seeking more details from citizens looking to use their US$50,000 quota and limits on purchases of investment-linked insurance products in Hong Kong.

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A slew of external risks could trigger another rush to get money out. If the Federal Reserve lifts interest rates quicker than anticipated, it could drive up the dollar, prompting outflows.

“Demand is strong to get money out,” said Pauline Loong, managing director at research firm Asia-Analytica in Hong Kong.

The problem, though, will likely remain how to bypass authorities seeking to rigidly enforce currency rules, said the Shanghai real estate agent.

“The biggest obstacle now is how to get US$500,000 out,” he said. And especially so if the US Congress acts next month to more than double the minimum EB-5 investment.