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Rubio Duels With MSCI Over Investors' Money in Chinese Stocks

Shelly Banjo and Jenny Leonard

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Global index provider MSCI Inc. is pushing back against criticism by U.S. Senator Marco Rubio that it’s helping funnel billions of Americans’ investment dollars into Chinese companies linked to human rights abuses and national security threats.

“Currently there is no U.S. law or regulation that prohibits an index company from creating an index containing China A securities or U.S. investors from trading in the China A market,” MSCI’s Chief Executive Officer Henry Fernandez said in a letter seen by Bloomberg. China A shares are open to buying and selling by foreign investors.

Fernandez wrote in a response to questions from Rubio about the index’s composition that inclusion isn’t based on “subjective judgment regarding the company’s intrinsic value or basic practices,” but on standardized attributes such as company size and liquidity.

MSCI’s response comes after the Florida Republican sent a public letter asking the index provider for an explanation on why it added hundreds of Chinese stocks to its benchmark emerging markets index since last year and then increased the weighting to them this year. The moves paved the way for billions of dollars more in investments and retirement-savings to flow to Chinese companies.

Some stocks in the index, such as Hangzhou Hikvision, have recently been placed on a U.S. blacklist preventing business with American companies.

Read more: U.S. Teachers, Firemen Fund Rise of China Tech Without Knowing It

“It is deeply troubling that a company like Hikvision, which is complicit in China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and is on the Commerce Department’s banned Entity List, can get access to the U.S. capital markets through an MSCI index,” Rubio said in a statement on Monday. “I will continue to work with my colleagues in a bipartisan fashion to ensure that U.S. investors and pensioners are not at risk.”

MSCI didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Rubio’s pressure on MSCI is part of a larger campaign by U.S. lawmakers to slow the spigot of money that has flowed from U.S. investment funds into Chinese companies. The moves come during an ongoing trade war between the two countries that has prompted U.S. officials to increase scrutiny to the money going into China.

American Securities Association CEO Chris Iacovella said MSCI’s response fails to address any of the concerns Rubio raised to protect American investors.

“MSCI continues to look the other way as it funnels billions of dollars of American money out of the U.S. and into Chinese companies that are fraudulent, on the sanctions list, or do-not-do business list,” he said.

Rubio has led a push by a group of bipartisan lawmakers advocating for more stringent restraints on investment and greater scrutiny of Chinese companies in stock indexes and U.S. pension funds. He has also proposed legislation that could delist Chinese companies from U.S. exchanges if they failed to comply with U.S. accounting practices and other laws.

The White House has been in touch with Rubio to discuss its support for the matter, but the legislation’s prospects in Congress remain unclear.

The MSCI letter agreed with Rubio that investors should know where they are investing and said in some cases the company makes specific references to China’s different accounting standards, and identifies China as an authoritarian regime. A Rubio spokesman said the Senator’s office received the letter earlier this month.

The MSCI CEO drew the distinction between passive index funds that MSCI powers, which do not serve as investment recommendations, and active asset managers, who can pick and choose which stocks to direct funds. In addition to serving as a benchmark for investments, MSCI said its indexes are used by academic institutions and researchers, cautioning that requiring the index to exclude certain stocks would “severely limit the ability to understand and assess global markets.”

Rubio told Bloomberg earlier this year that he’s not advocating for an all-out ban on U.S. investment in China, but for a regulatory body charged with examining investments, modeled on the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which was recently granted greater power to restrict Chinese acquisitions of U.S. technology.

“Firms like MSCI have an obligation to make sure investors know whether their investment dollars are unwittingly aiding Chinese state-owned and state-directed companies linked to China’s efforts to steal American innovation, undermine fair competition, increase threats to U.S. national security and economic security, and support China’s systemic and egregious human rights abuses,” Rubio said in an accompanying statement in June. “We can no longer allow China’s authoritarian government to reap the rewards of American and international capital markets.”

(Updates with comment from Rubio in sixth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Daniel Flatley.

To contact the reporters on this story: Shelly Banjo in Hong Kong at sbanjo@bloomberg.net;Jenny Leonard in Washington at jleonard67@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Murray at brmurray@bloomberg.net, Margaret Collins, Sarah McGregor

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