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Is J.P. Morgan Being Unfairly Targeted for ‘Business as Usual’ in China?

Daily Ticker

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM) is in China to win banking work from Chinese companies. To help in this competitive effort, the bank’s Asia division hires local employees who know the economic landscape there.

The most important companies in China are controlled to some degree by government entities. J.P. Morgan has hired a number of sons and daughters of Chinese officials, with an apparent expectation it would give the firm an edge in winning corporate clients there.

Is there something wrong in all this?

Well, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been examining the hiring practices of large banks in China to determine whether they violate U.S. anti-bribery rules, and over the weekend The New York Times detailed emails among J.P. Morgan executives that seem to explicitly link its “Sons and Daughters” hiring program to its chances of obtaining lucrative new business.

“Of course they’re doing this,” says Yahoo Finance’s Jeff Macke in the attached video. “This is kind of the way business is done. Welcome to Grownup Town, which happens in China as well. You hire people on the idea that you think they can get you some business.”

By these lights, it would almost be surprising if Western companies didn’t seek to win favor by handing out six-figure salaried jobs to “princelings” and other connected offspring.

Yet, as The Times points out, the 1997 Foreign Corrupt Practices act forbids American companies from offering “anything of value” to foreign officials to gain an “improper advantage.”

As with so many investigations of potential behavioral breaches at banks, this one seems to focus on emails written with a certain level of candor about what many in the industry have likely viewed as business norms.

The Times cites an email from a senior J.P. Morgan official stating: “You all know I have always been a big believer of the Sons and Daughters program — it almost has a linear relationship” with gaining new business.

The SEC is reportedly in the early stages of this investigation, which is also said to focus on hiring policies at J.P. Morgan competitors Citigroup Inc. (C), Credit Suisse AG (CS), Deutsche Bank AG (DB), Goldman Sachs Group (GS) and Morgan Stanley Inc. (MS).

The broader question hovering over such practices and any possible charges that might come of them is whether one country should dictate the “rules of play” governing international competition in other nations.

“This is another hard, icky decision we’ll have to make as we go global,” says Macke. He notes that Walmart (WMT) recently drew the critical scrutiny of the Justice Department over alleged bribes paid to Mexican officials as it tried to expand in that country.

If such practices are punished because “we decide that’s not the way ‘we’ do business, to a degree you handcuff yourself in terms of our own sense of morality and your own customs," Macke adds.

Over the very long term, one could argue that American companies can benefit from a general sense that they are held to somewhat higher standards than those from other countries. But it’s hard to know where the line should be drawn between the typical mode of doing business and participating in corruption on foreign soil.

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