ICBC draws on foreign expertise before listing
Francesco Guerrera and Richard McGregor
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) boasts that it has moved the equivalent of "Three Big Mountains" to improve the quality of its assets in a restructuring before a planned overseas listing.
Now, China's biggest bank is enlisting the help of three foreign banks to remove further obstacles on the long and tortuous way to become a modern financial services group.
The announcement, expected in Beijing, of its three partners -- Goldman Sachs, Germany's Allianz and American Express -- is something of an achievement in itself.
China's finance industry has since late last year been buffeted by a long and increasingly politicised debate over whether foreigners should continue to be allowed to buy into important financial institutions.
The backlash against foreign investors was sparked by the successful initial public offering (IPO) overseas of China Construction Bank (CCB), a listing backed by Bank of America and Temasek, the Singapore state investment group.
In an article that captured the occasionally xenophobic tone of the backlash against outside investment, Yu Yunhui, president of Tebon Securities in Shanghai, said the government should be "on alert against any policy and theory that aims to colonise China economically".
ICBC's ability to maintain the momentum of its restructuring with foreign partners in this climate is a testament to its clout and also to the determination of the leaders of China's financial reforms not to cower in the face of criticism.
If everything goes to plan, Hank Paulson, the feisty Wall Street operator and Goldman Sachs's chief executive, will have to explain how the quintessential investment bank has become the main strategic investor in China's largest retail bank.
People close to the situation say Goldman Sachs has agreed to train ICBC's executives in crucial functions such as corporate governance, risk management, treasury and bad loan resolutions.
Some analysts point to Goldman Sachs's expertise in advising several of the world's largest retail banks on operational issues that go well beyond acquisitions and equity deals.
But others argue a "bulge bracket" firm renowned for advisory and trading skills will not have the insight of commercial banks like Bank of America or Royal Bank of Scotland, which have bought into CCB and Bank of China, respectively.
ICBC's choice of Goldman Sachs as its main strategic investor was driven by both necessity and design. On one hand, with many international retail banks either in partnership with a large Chinese lender, like BoA, RBS and HSBC, or not interested, such as Citigroup and Deutsche Bank, ICBC could not afford to refuse Goldman Sachs' expertise and $2.6bn cash injection.
Alternatively, the US group's involvement could signal ICBC's intention to be more of a universal bank than CCB or BoC, with Goldman Sachs capable of providing help in areas such as asset management and fixed income.
Certainly, the likelihood of Goldman Sachs or any foreign investor hoping to gain control of any of China's big four state banks is virtually nil, in the short to medium-term at least.
Huang Ju, the vice-premier in charge of the finance sector, made clear in a speech last month that the role of foreigners would be strictly quarantined.
"For the sake of national economic and financial safety," said Mr Huang, "the government must retain its status as the controlling shareholder as the banks carry out reforms."
FT Syndication Service