The international ties that bind are a major asset for the Chinese- and Korean-American banks in Los Angeles.
That's largely because such institutions are courting countless small- and mid-sized L.A.-area firms involved in trade with Asia. Many of those firms lack the language and cultural skills necessary to transact their overseas deals. For them, being on personal terms with a local banker who knows the right person in Hong Kong or Taipei can often save a lot of time and frustration.
It's that personal level of service, together with the local bank's global network, that have made Asian-American banks a viable option for many local importers and exporters.
"The senior management at these banks has a very good knowledge of doing business in the Far East," said Derek Derman, a banking analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. "Their customer base often lacks knowledge of the culture, where there may be a right way and a wrong way to submit an application, for example. Bank of America also has ties with the Far East, of course, but you don't get the CEO to make a phone call on your behalf."
It's not unusual for managers of Asian community banks in Los Angeles to be immigrants from Asian countries themselves and to have worked as bankers in Asia. Consequently, they have established a network of personal relationships overseas that they can tap to help their clients' overseas transactions sail through without a hitch.
"The original founders of our bank were educated and worked as bankers in Taiwan," said Li-Pei Wu, chairman and chief executive of General Bank in downtown Los Angeles.
"We have very deep connections in Taiwan, and that allows our clients to do business there with more confidence."
Indeed General Bank's connections with Taiwan run so deep that earlier this year that country's government appointed Wu as an advisor to its president.
Obviously, such services offered by Asian-American banks are of great use to businesses in their own ethnic communities. But they can also be key to firms outside those communities that need to do business in Asia but have few, if any, connections there.
"More than 50 percent of our business is with local, (non-Chinese) mainstream companies," said Dominic Ng, president and chief executive of East West Bank in San Marino. "We provide value to our mainstream customers by functioning as a financial bridge between East and West."
Along with advice and the occasional phone call to Asia on a client's behalf, local Chinese- and Korean-American community banks provide their L.A.-area customers with international finance services, such as letters of credit, lines of credit to finance international transactions, and foreign exchange services.
Meanwhile, Asia-based companies with offices in L.A. typically have their banking needs handled by larger Asian banks, such as Bank of Taiwan and China Trust Bank, which have operations in L.A.
"These international banks will handle the international trade transactions and the real estate transactions for businesses based in Taiwan and Hong Kong," said Eddy Chao, president of Asian Pacific Capital Co. "The small community banks will find it hard to compete with them because, even though they can provide individual service, they can't compete on the rates these big banks can offer."
Nevertheless, many individuals in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong use one bank for their business transactions and another for their private transactions. It's a well-known secret, for instance, that many affluent Taiwanese have funneled large sums of money to U.S. bank accounts, and it's likely that local Chinese-American banks are involved in safekeeping that money, even if they won't publicly acknowledge it.
"There are hundreds of millions in deposits from the East in banks here," said Derman. "(Clients) like to keep it here for security, or to have money when they visit."
The matter is even more complicated because many Asian Americans still have family in places like Korea and Taiwan, or may still live in those countries part of the time. That means a lot of money is wired to and from Asia, either to support family members or for business ventures.
For example, when the 1997 financial crisis devastated many Asian economies, large sums of money were sent to Korea by L.A.-based Korean Americans to support their families back home.
At the same time, many Asian-American entrepreneurs receive investments from their families in Asia, depending on the economic climate in those countries.
"Right now, we don't see too much investments coming from Taiwan," said Chao. "There has been a lot of political insecurity and an economic slowdown (in Taiwan) over the last six months, so people there don't have much money to invest here."
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