Want a job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Hong Kong? Well, who's your daddy? Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg.
Want a job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Hong Kong? Well, who's your daddy? Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg.

According to a Bloomberg News report, the Securities and Exchange Commission is on the verge of figuring out how business is actually done in China.

The key to this discovery is a spreadsheet that the SEC obtained from JPMorgan Chase & Co.. It includes two key sets of data: the names of the offspring of some of China’s most prominent families, and a list of “specific deals pursued by the bank.” According to the Bloomberg report, combining these two data sets has provided investigators with a Rosetta Stone-like insight into how the bank just might make money in the Middle Kingdom:

The spreadsheet, which links some hiring decisions to specific transactions pursued by the bank, may be viewed by regulators as evidence that JPMorgan added people in exchange for business, according to one person with knowledge of the review.

From the perspective of the SEC, these hiring decisions could be construed as bribery, and thus subject to prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In time, that may turn out to be the case. But until then, the SEC is going to have a hard time convincing anyone who works in China -- including foreign corporations operating here -- that drumming up business by hiring the offspring of the rich and powerful is unusual. In fact, arguably, it’s a relatively ethical approach to competing in a country where no-bid contracts for government business are often won via means far more expensive than the cost of an analyst’s salary in Hong Kong.

For example, during the recently-completed trial of Bo Xilai, the fallen party secretary of Chongqing, testimony was offered suggesting that, in exchange for awarding an obscure Dalian businessman no-bid contracts, Bo’s family allegedly received real estate, private school tuition, airfares and, on an impulse, a Segway. In Chinese terms, that’s corruption, and -- thanks to increased coverage by China’s state media -- it’s well-known to be common and involve sums greater than the unrespectable $4 million in bribes that Bo allegedly accepted. By that standard, attempting to bribe someone with the equivalent of an analysts’ salary, and whatever prestige might be associated with a JPMorgan business card, is laughable.

According to the New York Times, JPMorgan began keeping track of well-connected Chinese job applicants in 2006, as a way to avoid precisely the type of bribery investigation that resulted in Bloomberg obtaining the firm’s suggestive spreadsheet. However, as unseemly as the bank’s hiring process might appear, it’s likely motivated by no higher -- or lower -- desire than the opportunity to obtain access, attention and empathy from power. If that’s illegal, then there are far more criminals walking around Wall Street today than anyone had previously thought.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg's World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)