JPMorgan to sell Asia investment business: Buyer beware

December 17, 2013, 7:58 PM UTC

JPMorgan has put its Asia-based Global Special Opportunities Group on the block, hoping to fetch a cool $1 billion from the sale. The bank has been shopping the group around to a number of private equity firms and credit-focused hedge funds that apparently want greater exposure to the fast-growing Asian — and by Asian we really mean Chinese — credit markets. The Financial Times reports that Blackstone’s GSO arm, Carlyle (CG), and KKR (KKR) are kicking the tires.

One can’t help but think that the impetus behind this sale may have to do with all the heat JPMorgan (JPM) has taken recently over its controversial Chinese hiring practices. The firm is supposedly under investigation by U.S. authorities for allegedly hiring the sons and daughters of Chinese officials in an attempt to gain access to China’s massive state-controlled companies.

While the practice seems despicable to many Americans, in China, using your “Guanxi” (connections) to facilitate business is not only the norm, it is crucial in creating a bonded contract. That’s because in China contracts have little meaning and can be broken pretty much at any time with little penalty. Put simply, a deal isn’t done in China until the money is transferred — period. That introduces a great deal of risk in what is already a risky venture. The way a foreigner can reduce that risk is to bring a familiar face to their side of the bargaining table.

The unit up for sale, which has only 35 employees, doesn’t appear to be the one U.S. authorities have been targeting in their investigation — but that doesn’t really matter. The incident still raises questions about the cost of doing business in China — something interested firms must take into account. If JPM is found guilty of violating the law for something that bankers in Asia tell me is ubiquitous and “standard operating practice,” then any U.S. investment firm looking to expand in Asia would be exposing themselves to a great deal of risk. As such, does this reduce the value of U.S. financial subs in Asia? This deal could be test.