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China may face wall buying U.S. companies

Collapse of $1.2 billion purchase of MoneyGram by Chinese company could signal tougher stance in Washington


The Trump administration may be building another kind of wall -- one blocking acquisitions of U.S. finance firms by Chinese companies.

Ant, the Chinese financial services firm controlled by Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, on Wednesday abandoned its $1.2 billion agreement to buy MoneyGram (MGI) after it failed to win approval from the federal Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States. CFIUS, as the panel is called, reviews cross-border mergers for their potential impact on national security. 

According to Reuters, CFIUS's concerns centered on Ant gaining access to MoneyGram data that could be used to identify American citizens.  

But some analysts think the committee's move is less about the particulars of this deal than a broader reluctance to sanction Chinese investment in America's financial sector.

"To us, the clear message here is that the Trump administration will refuse to clear any effort by Chinese companies to purchase or take large stakes in U.S. financial firms," Jaret Seiberg, an analyst at Cowen, wrote in a note to clients. "The merits of the transaction are irrelevant. There simply appears to be a de facto ban on CFIUS giving its blessing to any financial deals involving China."

CFIUS, which is led by the Treasury Department, also includes the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, Defense, State, Energy, as well as the offices of the U.S. Trade Representative and of Science and Technology policy.  

President Trump and White House officials have sounded a protectionist note since entering office, calling for tougher trade terms with China. In September, U.S. Trade Representative said in a speech that China posed an "unprecedented" threat to global trade. 

Ant's Alipay controls about half of China's $5.5 trillion mobile-payments market and has ambitions to expand globally, according to Bloomberg News. But few analysts expected CFIUS to effectively bar the door to its purchase of MoneyGram, which was announced in January of 2017.    

MoneyGram CEO Alex Homes explicitly cited the political atmosphere around the deal in explaining why it collapsed.

"The geopolitical environment has changed considerably" since announcing the transaction, he said in a statement. "Despite our best efforts to work cooperatively with the U.S. government, it has now become clear that CFIUS will not approve this merger."

CFIUS hasn't actually blocked any Chinese financial deals, as such a move would mean President Trump would have to take a public stance on the issue, Seiberg noted.  But the companies said it was clear the panel wouldn't approve this one. Instead, the two agreed to work together as independent companies.

It's rare for CFIUS to block a transaction, though Trump did block a China-backed purchase of Lattice Semiconductor in September.

"So the threat of Trump stopping a deal are real," Seiberg wrote. 

How Ma and Ant approach their ambitions to expand may change. For now, MoneyGram and Ant have formed a partnership, according to their statement. Under their merger agreement, Ant also paid MoneyGram $30 million to end the transaction.

"We don't think this is the start of a trend where people just won't do things in the U.S.," Jeremy Choy, head of M&A for China Renaissance, told Bloomberg Television.  "A lot of technology companies are becoming increasingly global, so they have to go to the U.S. But in terms of the approach, it will be less direct than finding a target and buying 100 percent."

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