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As Investors, Chinese Turn to New York

August 10th, 2011 | by: The New York Times

Chinese banks have poured more than $1 billion into real estate loans in New York City in the past year. Investors from China are snapping up luxury apartments and planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on commercial and residential projects like Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. Chinese companies have signed major leases at the Empire State Building and at 1 World Trade Center, which is the centerpiece of the rebuilding at ground zero.

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Xue Ya, president of the China Center, is involved in business and cultural exchange. “New York,” she said, “is the starting point for going global.”
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Investment in the city by companies and entrepreneurs from China has been surging in the last few years, recalling the boom in Japanese investment that swept the region in the 1980s and helping to buoy the local economy even as the country as a whole struggles to get out of recession.

The Chinese investments are occurring with little fanfare, in part because Chinese executives tend to shun publicity. But back home, their government is urging them to invest overseas to diversify China’s foreign-exchange holdings, develop business partnerships and improve the country’s leverage in international affairs.

Dan Fasulo, managing director of Real Capital Analytics, which tracks commercial real estate sales, was combing through his files the other day for deals in New York City that involved Chinese investments. As the list grew longer and longer, he paused, a tone of surprise in his voice. “It’s truly amazing how much they’ve been able to do without being highlighted in public,” he said.

Delegations of Chinese officials and executives have been sweeping through the city, on a nearly weekly basis, assessing the markets, searching for office locations and meeting prospective partners and clients. Last month, officials and executives from China and the United States filled a ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria to make deals during a business conference.

“Everybody wants to come to New York because New York is the starting point for going global,” said Xue Ya, president of the China Center, a business and cultural organization that was the first tenant to sign a lease at 1 World Trade Center, where it will occupy six floors. Once established in New York, Mrs. Xue said, “you are a player.”

Even one of the region’s fastest growing construction companies is Chinese. The company, China Construction America, has won contracts on major public works projects, including the Tappan Zee and Alexander Hamilton Bridges, the No. 7 subway line extension and the $91 million Metro-North Railroad station at Yankee Stadium.

China Construction is a subsidiary of a state-controlled construction company in China. The wave of Japanese investment in the city a generation ago — epitomized by the purchase of a controlling stake in Rockefeller Center by the Mitsubishi Estate Company of Tokyo in 1989 — stirred anxiety and even xenophobia. Some New Yorkers saw it as evidence that the city and the country were losing their dominant positions.

This time, city officials are welcoming Chinese investment as a boon to the local economy. But in a report in May, the Asia Society and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars warned that on a national level, protectionist impulses and anti-China sentiment, particularly in Washington, could scare away investors.

Flush with capital from its enormous trade surpluses, China has been on an investment spree, especially in developing countries. While the size of China’s investments in the United States pales in comparison with investments by other countries, it has nevertheless been growing rapidly.

“In terms of overall flow from China into the U.S., many of us believe that it could accelerate very quickly, and it could even parallel what Japanese investment did in the mid-’80s,” said Clarence Kwan, a senior partner at Deloitte, a business services firm.

The Chinese government is acutely interested in diversifying its foreign exchange reserves beyond United States Treasuries. One sign of this is the push by Chinese state-run banks to invest their money in commercial real estate in New York City.

In one of the largest loans by a single lender in the city since 2008, the Bank of China lent $800 million late last year to refinance a building on Park Avenue housing JPMorgan Chase and Major League Baseball, analysts said. Among other deals, the Bank of China recently agreed to lend more than $250 million to refinance an office tower at 3 Columbus Circle.

Analysts, as well as American and Chinese officials, said it was hard to calculate the precise size of Chinese investment in New York, or even the number of deals with Chinese involvement, because of the complexities of international business arrangements and privacy laws. But experts said the current level of interest was only a hint of what could come.

Cong Zhong, chairman of Kingee Cultural Development Company, a conglomerate based in Beijing that makes Chinese decorative products, said he planned a foothold in North America with a flagship retail store on Fifth Avenue. “If we start from New York,” Mr. Zhong explained in a telephone interview from Beijing, “it will be easier to expand.”

Ning Yuan, president of China Construction America, said he had not faced anti-Chinese sentiment. The company, based in Jersey City, uses union workers on its projects in the city.

“So far so good,” Mr. Yuan said. “Our company has a lot of experience in the past 20 to 30 years in China. The economy in China is booming, and a lot of the construction projects have been done by our company. It’s good for the local market that we can bring our expertise.”

Chinese money is also poised to flow into the city through a federal program that offers the possibility of permanent residency to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in certain development projects.

Under this program, known as EB-5, Forest City Ratner Companies has arranged for $249 million in loans from Chinese investors for residential and office towers at Atlantic Yards, the commercial and residential project in Brooklyn that includes a new stadium for the New Jersey Nets. The developers of a hospital and hotel project in Flushing, Queens, have lined up about $30 million in financing from China, turning away scores of other interested investors, said Richard Xia, president of the firm raising the money.

Tourism from China is booming in New York as well, helping to sustain the hotel, restaurant and retail sectors. In 2010, 266,000 Chinese people visited the city, a 45 percent increase over 2009, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism arm.

High-end real estate agents are doing their best to accommodate the influx.

Pamela Liebman, president of the Corcoran Group, said her firm had fielded a “huge” increase in inquiries from wealthy Chinese looking for luxury residential properties, “some in the $30-million-plus range.”

“We went from zero to 200 miles per hour in six months,” she said. “This year, it’s the biggest buzz word in real estate: ‘Chinese.’ ”

Xiaolan Shang, an agent with Prudential Douglas Elliman, said that five years ago, she had very few international clients. Now, about 90 percent of her client base is Chinese — and most pay in cash.

“I’ve had people come to New York only for the weekend,” Ms. Shang recalled. “They see the apartment, they make the offer and right away they fly back to China.”

“Cash deal,” she added. “Right away.”