On Wednesday morning, Thomas Britt, a partner with
Debevoise & Plimpton
in Hong Kong, will head not to his office but to the nearby American Club, where a crowd of expatriates will gather to watch the U.S. election results start coming in.
Given the tightness of the race, it could be a long day. “I don’t think the folks at the American Club are going to get too much work done that day,” says Britt, who is backing Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
For all the talk of China’s rise, the outcome of the U.S. presidential race still commands huge attention in Asia, among both Americans living abroad and locals fascinated by the competition to become leader of the world’s sole superpower. The legal community is no exception.
There are some issues of particular interest to U.S. lawyers in Asia. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that taxes income earned by its citizens abroad. The issue was highlighted in the region by the renunciation of U.S. citizenship earlier this year by Singapore resident and Facebook billionaire Eduardo Saverin.
Still, it’s not entirely clear which candidate would offer American expats a better deal in terms of taxes. President Barack Obama’s pledge to increase the marginal tax rate on income above $250,000 would undoubtedly hit high-earning expats in the legal community. But Americans working abroad also benefit from substantial deductions, which a Romney administration might eliminate to help pay for his promised across-the-board tax cuts.
Likewise, both candidates have talked tough on China, with Romney vowing, if elected, to declare the world’s second-largest economy a currency manipulator on his first day in office. Many fear that such a step would spark a trade war that would undoubtedly hurt U.S. business, not to mention lawyers and other professionals in the region. But Romney backers in the business community seem to
that he would actually carry though on his threat.
Britt says the uncertainties on taxes and China policy under either candidate mean that those issues don’t “move the needle for most” Americans in Hong Kong supporting Romney. Rather, they’ve mainly arrived in Asia with their political views from home.
“For me, it’s all about who I think can lead and govern in what I think are the country’s best interests,” says Britt, who describes his views as center-right. “I have more of a belief that, under a Romney administration generally, regulation will be right-sized, and there will be more of a focus on jobs and growth.”
Britt is one of three Hong Kong partners with New York firms—
Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy
’s Anthony Root and
Sullivan & Cromwell
’s Michael DeSombre are the others—who have been leading a fund-raising push for Romney among expat lawyers in the region.
In finance-friendly Hong Kong, admiration for Romney’s background as a private equity pioneer and perceptions that Obama is hostile to business mean that those efforts have been well-received. Scott Jalowayski, a
Ropes & Gray
private equity partner who divides his time between Hong Kong and Tokyo, says he’s backing Romney mainly because of Obama’s rocky relationship with Wall Street.
“He’s really managed to alienate most of the financial community,” says Jalowayski, “and that’s our bread and butter in Hong Kong.”
Ropes & Gray is perhaps the firm most associated with Romney and Bain Capital, the private equity firm the former Massachusetts governor once led. In June
The American Lawyer
the relationship between Romney and Ropes & Gray chairman R. Bradford Malt, who manages the candidate’s blind trust. The firm counts many Democrats in its ranks, though, including managing partner John Montgomery.
Lawyers in the region backing Obama have been somewhat less visible, but they’re out there. Lucy Reed, the Hong Kong–based global cohead of the international arbitration practice at
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
, became familiar with Obama through ties to her alma mater, the University of Chicago Law School, where the president previously taught constitutional law. “I was a very early supporter of his first presidential campaign,” she says.
She continues to support him but says she also frequently rubs shoulders with Romney backers in Hong Kong finance circles. “What I ask my investment banker friends is: ‘Does being knowledgeable about finance makes them qualified to be president?’ ” says Reed.
Outside of the expatriate community, it appears that Obama is the clear choice in Asia. A
recently conducted by Agence France-Presse and French think tank Ipsos recently found that 63 percent of Chinese respondents and 86 percent of Japanese would vote for Obama to win the election.
Ipsos Hong Kong associate director Andrew Lam told the AFP that Romney’s unpopularity in Japan may be due to his
on the stump that Japan has been in “decline and distress for a decade or a century” and that America will follow suit without a change in leadership.
Chen Qi, a professor at Tsinghua University, told AFP that Chinese people, who see rising inequality in their own country, perceived Obama as more concerned with helping the poor.
“Many people feel that Obama looks after the bottom level of society, with his policies such as medical reform, and a lot of Chinese people support that. . . . There is some suspicion of rich businessmen entering politics,” Chen said.
have noted how closely Chinese are following the U.S. election, comparing its openness to the secrecy surrounding the ongoing changeover in China’s top leadership.
Chengfei Ding, a Beijing-based special counsel with
Baker & McKenzie
, became interested in U.S. politics while studying law at Drake University in Iowa. Though he is a U.S. permanent resident and not a citizen, he nonetheless decided to donate the maximum amount for the primary and general elections cycles—to Obama.
Ding says he thinks Obama is more likely to promote good relations between China and the United States. He also says he just prefers what he sees as the Democrats’ more inclusive message. “They seem like more reasonable people to me,” says Ding.