Chinese EB-5 investors might be jumping ship for private equity

Facing long wait times and uncertainty, some investors are changing their approach.

(Credit from left: Max Pixel, U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Chief Johnny Bivera, Fleet Combat Camera Atlantic)
(Credit from left: Max Pixel, U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Chief Johnny Bivera, Fleet Combat Camera Atlantic)

The EB-5 gravy train has left the station, however a new generation of private equity firms could be poised to step into the gap for Chinese investors interested in U.S. real estate, though a green card may not be part of the equation.

According to Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr’s partner Ronald Fieldstone, “many EB-5 funding sources, especially including migration agents in China, have established equity funds that are seeking to raise capital to invest in US real estate in a non-EB-5 manner,” he wrote in a recent blog post for JDSupra.

Chinese investors’ use of EB-5 accounted for the vast majority of the capital raised through the visa investment program, which grants foreign investors a green card in return for putting their money at risk to fund property development in the U.S. The South China Morning Post reports that, at one time, Chinese investors provided up to 90 percent of the $50 billion generated annually from the program.

But now the stream of Chinese EB-5 investors has slowed due to a confluence of factors including long waiting lists–there’s a roughly 10-year backlog–and uncertainty around both the program’s future and President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, the Post reports. The SEC’s investigation of Kushner Companies‘ use of EB-5 has also reportedly “alarmed” would-be investors.

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“The $400 million deals we were doing regularly a couple of years ago now become $10 million… Now a $20 million deal is considered big,” said EB-5 immigration lawyer Clem Turner from Barst Mukamel & Kliener at the 2018 NYC Real Estate Expo, as reported by the Post.

The resulting impact for New York real estate could be acute, considering several developers have use the program to seek hundreds of millions for projects — recently that list includes SL Green Realty for One Vanderbilt as well as Related Companies, Oxford Properties Group and The Moinian Group for projects at Hudson Yards. The EB-5 program, which was established in 1990 yet remains impermanent, has been extended to September 30 without alteration, however, Miami-based attorney Fieldstone believes there is a way developers can deploy the existing program differently to entice investors back to using EB-5.

He believes that, going forward, for the program to remain viable in the eyes of foreign investors deals should be structured to provide profit-sharing, akin to a deal struck with a private equity firm rather than the current way of providing EB-5 investors with “a minimal fixed rate of return.” Fieldstone said he knows of companies already attempting this approach.

“It will be interesting to see,” the results, he wrote. [SCMP]Erin Hudson