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Trump Records Shed New Light on Chinese Business Pursuits

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President Trump and his allies have tried to paint the Democratic nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., as soft on China, in part by pointing to his son’s business dealings there.

Senate Republicans produced a report asserting, among other things, that Mr. Biden’s son Hunter “opened a bank account” with a Chinese businessman, part of what it said were his numerous connections to “foreign nationals and foreign governments across the globe.”

But Mr. Trump’s own business history is filled with overseas financial deals, and some have involved the Chinese state. He spent a decade unsuccessfully pursuing projects in China, operating an office there during his first run for president and forging a partnership with a major government-controlled company.

And it turns out that China is one of only three foreign nations — the others are Britain and Ireland — where Mr. Trump maintains a bank account, according to an analysis of the president’s tax records, which were obtained by The New York Times. The foreign accounts do not show up on Mr. Trump’s public financial disclosures, where he must list personal assets, because they are held under corporate names. The identities of the financial institutions are not clear.

The Chinese account is controlled by Trump International Hotels Management L.L.C., which the tax records show paid $188,561 in taxes in China while pursuing licensing deals there from 2013 to 2015.

The tax records do not include details on how much money may have passed through the overseas accounts, though the Internal Revenue Service does require filers to report the portion of their income derived from other countries. The British and Irish accounts are held by companies that operate Mr. Trump’s golf courses in Scotland and Ireland, which regularly report millions of dollars in revenue from those countries. Trump International Hotels Management reported just a few thousand dollars from China.

In response to questions from The Times, Alan Garten, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, said the company had “opened an account with a Chinese bank having offices in the United States in order to pay the local taxes” associated with efforts to do business there. He said the company had opened the account after establishing an office in China “to explore the potential for hotel deals in Asia.”

“No deals, transactions or other business activities ever materialized and, since 2015, the office has remained inactive,” Mr. Garten said. “Though the bank account remains open, it has never been used for any other purpose.”

Mr. Garten would not identify the bank in China where the account is held. Until last year, China’s biggest state-controlled bank rented three floors in Trump Tower, a lucrative lease that drew accusations of a conflict of interest for the president.

ImageTrump Tower in Manhattan had a lucrative lease agreement until last year with China’s largest state-controlled bank.
Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

China continues to be an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign, from the president’s trade war to his barbs over the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. His campaign has tried to portray Mr. Biden as a “puppet” of China who, as vice president, misread the dangers posed by its growing power. Mr. Trump has also sought to tar his opponent with overblown or unsubstantiated assertions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings there while his father was in office.

“He’s like a vacuum cleaner — he follows his father around collecting,” Mr. Trump said recently, referring to Mr. Biden’s son. “What a disgrace. It’s a crime family.”

In a misleading claim amplified by surrogates like his son Donald Trump Jr. and his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president has said the younger Mr. Biden “walked out of China” with $1.5 billion after accompanying his father on an official trip in 2013. Numerous news articles and fact-checking sites have explained that the huge figure was actually a fund-raising goal set by an investment firm in which Hunter Biden obtained a 10 percent stake after his father left office. The firm did receive financial backing from a large state-controlled bank, but it is not clear the fund-raising target was ever met, and there is no evidence Hunter Biden received a large personal payout.

As for the former vice president, his public financial disclosures, along with the income tax returns he voluntarily released, show no income or business dealings of his own in China. However, there is ample evidence of Mr. Trump’s efforts to join the myriad American firms that have long done business there — and the tax records for him and his companies that were obtained by The Times offer new details about them.

As with Russia, where he explored hotel and tower projects in Moscow without success, Mr. Trump has long sought a licensing deal in China. His efforts go at least as far back as 2006, when he filed trademark applications in Hong Kong and the mainland. Many Chinese government approvals came after he became president. (The president’s daughter Ivanka Trump also won Chinese trademark approvals for her personal business after she joined the White House staff.)

Credit…Ng Han Guan/Associated Press
Credit…Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

In 2008, Mr. Trump pursued an office tower project in Guangzhou that never got off the ground. But his efforts accelerated in 2012 with the opening of a Shanghai office, and tax records show that one of Mr. Trump’s China-related companies, THC China Development L.L.C., claimed $84,000 in deductions that year for travel costs, legal fees and office expenses.

After effectively planting his flag there, Mr. Trump found a partner in the State Grid Corporation, one of the nation’s largest government-controlled enterprises. Agence France-Presse reported in 2016 that the partnership would have involved licensing and managing a development in Beijing. Mr. Trump was reportedly still pursuing the deal months into his first presidential campaign, but it was abandoned after State Grid became ensnared in a corruption investigation by Chinese authorities.

It is difficult to determine from the tax records precisely how much money Mr. Trump has spent trying to land business in China. The records show that he has invested at least $192,000 in five small companies created specifically to pursue projects there over the years. Those companies claimed at least $97,400 in business expenses since 2010, including some minor payments for taxes and accounting fees as recently as 2018.

But Mr. Trump’s plans in China have been largely driven by a different company, Trump International Hotels Management — the one with a Chinese bank account.

The company has direct ownership of THC China Development, but is also involved in management of other Trump-branded properties around the world, and it is not possible to discern from its tax records how much of its financial activity is China-related. It normally reports a few million dollars in annual income and deductible expenses.

In 2017, the company reported an unusually large spike in revenue — some $17.5 million, more than the previous five years’ combined. It was accompanied by a $15.1 million withdrawal by Mr. Trump from the company’s capital account.

On the president’s public financial disclosures for that year, he reported the large revenue figure, and described it only as “management fees and other contract payments.” One significant event for the company that is known to have occurred in 2017 was the buyout of its management contract for the SoHo hotel in New York, which Bloomberg reported to have cost around $6 million.

Mr. Garten would not comment on the specific amount cited by Bloomberg, but said that the contract buyout represented a “significant portion” of the company’s revenue and that the remaining money was not related to China.

Outside of China, Mr. Trump has had more success attracting wealthy Chinese buyers for his properties in other countries. His hotels and towers in Las Vegas and Vancouver, British Columbia — locales known for attracting Chinese real estate investors — have found numerous Chinese purchasers, and in at least one instance drew the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

During the 2016 campaign, a shell company controlled by a Chinese couple from Vancouver bought 11 units, for $3.1 million, in the Las Vegas tower Mr. Trump co-owns with the casino magnate Phil Ruffin. The owner of a Las Vegas-based financial services firm told The Times he was later visited by two F.B.I. agents asking about the company behind the purchases, which he said had used his office address in incorporation papers without his knowledge. It is not known what became of the inquiry.

Credit…Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Mr. Garten said the Trump Organization had “never been contacted by the F.B.I. and has no knowledge of any investigation.”

In Vancouver, numerous Chinese buyers of units in Mr. Trump’s hotel and tower helped increase licensing fees from that project to $5.8 million in 2016, the year it was completed, according to tax records. The project was built by a Canadian-based firm controlled by the family of Malaysia’s richest man, Tony Tiah Thee Kian, who operates hotels in China and elsewhere. CNN reported in 2018 that the Vancouver operation was the subject of a counterintelligence review related to Ivanka Trump’s need for a security clearance.

And not long after winning the 2016 election, Mr. Trump reported selling a penthouse in one of his Manhattan buildings for $15.8 million to a Chinese-American businesswoman named Xiao Yan Chen, who bought the unit, previously occupied by Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, in an off-market transaction. Ms. Chen runs an international consulting firm and reportedly has high-level connections to government and political elites in China.

Mr. Trump’s tax records show that he reported a capital gain of at least $5.6 million from the penthouse sale in 2017, his first year as president.

Jo Becker contributed reporting.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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