Citigroup asks private bankers to rethink China travel

BEIJING • Citigroup and some other global firms are asking their wealth managers to reconsider travel to China, even as UBS Group removed similar curbs.

The moves come after a UBS wealth manager's departure from China was delayed last week, according to a person familiar with the matter.

UBS and Julius Baer Group had imposed restrictions on staff travel after the incident, other people familiar with the matter had said last Friday.

Zurich-based UBS has now lifted the curbs, spokesman Rob Stewart said in an e-mail yesterday.

"UBS would like to confirm that we allow all our staff to travel freely in and out of the country and it is business as usual for us in China," he added.

A decision to restrict travel to China would be a tough choice for global banks as the world's second-largest economy creates more billionaires by the week.

The UBS wealth manager, who focuses on China, had delayed her departure after being asked to meet local officials on an unknown matter, a person familiar with the issue said.

There is a vast private banking opportunity in China. The collective fortunes of China's uber-rich grew a staggering 65 per cent, or US$177 billion (S$244 billion), last year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world's 500 wealthiest people.

UBS has been told the meeting is due to happen this week, said the person, who asked not to be named because the details are not public.

Citigroup's curbs were earlier reported by Reuters, which said Standard Chartered and JPMorgan Chase have also asked their private banking employees to restrict travel to China.

Spokesmen at Standard Chartered and JPMorgan declined to comment. Representatives for Citigroup and Julius Baer also declined to comment.

There is a vast private banking opportunity in China. The collective fortunes of China's uber-rich grew a staggering 65 per cent, or US$177 billion (S$244 billion), last year, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world's 500 wealthiest people.

However, what has long looked like a slam-dunk opportunity - the second-biggest pool of ultra-rich people in the world - also comes with cumbersome regulations and strong competition from homemade financial brands.

The Chinese government is also cracking down on riskier, high-yield products, which has given global banks a reason to re-evaluate onshore operations.

The UBS travel restriction affected only those who help manage money for clients and had not been imposed on other UBS business units. The bank estimates a new billionaire is minted in China every two days.

"UBS has had a strong franchise in China for 30 years and remains fully committed to further developing our business on the mainland," Mr Stewart said.

UBS is the largest wealth manager in Asia, with total assets under management of US$383 billion at the end of last year, according to Asian Private Banker. It is followed by Citigroup, Credit Suisse Group and HSBC Holdings.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2018, with the headline 'Citigroup asks private bankers to rethink China travel'. Print Edition | Subscribe