Citigroup to hire 3,000 for Asia institutional banking, mostly for Singapore and Hong Kong

Citi's main regional institutional business is in Singapore and Hong Kong. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Citigroup plans to hire around 3,000 new staff for its Asia institutional business in the next few years, sharpening its focus in a fast-growing region where it has exited consumer banking in most markets, said its Asia-Pacific chief executive officer.

"We're talking about real meat on the bones on growing our business across Asia," Asia-Pacific CEO Peter Babej told Reuters in an interview.

The bank's main regional institutional business is in Singapore and Hong Kong, and Mr Babej said these two hubs would be a key focus of the 3,000 additional headcount for the unit. It did not disclose the existing headcount for the business.

Citi's institutional business includes investment banking, and corporate and commercial banking units that provide trade finance, cash management, payments and custody services, among others.

The previously unreported staff expansion plans underline Citi's ambition to make institutional banking and wealth management engines of growth, seeking to bolster revenue in a region that has become a battleground for global banks looking to tap its vast economies and growing wealth.

Citi has around US$200 billion (S$275 billion) in wealth assets in Asia, and the bank is "on track" to grow client assets by US$150 billion by 2025, a spokesman said, despite global economic and market uncertainties.

The bank's expansion of Asian institutional business comes on top of plans announced last year to hire about 2,300 people by 2025 for its wealth management unit.

Citi said last year that US$7 billion in capital released from the divestment of consumer banking businesses in 13 markets, 10 of which were in Asia, would be either returned to shareholders or invested in lucrative institutional banking and wealth management units.

"That gives you a sense that the magnitude of the set of investment we're talking about both from a people perspective, and from a capital perspective, it is very significant," Mr Babej said. He took on the Asia-Pacific CEO role in 2019 and previously worked as global head of the bank's financial institutions group.

Last year, Citi created a single wealth management business, to deliver services to clients from the affluent segment as well as ultra-high net worth individuals. The Asia wealth business is also centred in Singapore and Hong Kong, hubs where the bank still retains its consumer banking units.

'Importance of China'

Wealth managers at the big global banks are tempering their expectations for Asia, after China's regulatory crackdown and Covid-19-driven slowdown helped to push clients to the sidelines, bankers and analysts told Reuters last month.

"As global growth slows down, Asia slows down as well, but the relative growth is still higher than most other places in the world," said Mr Babej.

"And that growth, which translates into portfolio wealth, is one that we're incredibly excited about, and the global solutions that we can provide for that wealth are increasingly relevant for our Asian clients."

Mr Babej believes the wealth that's been accumulated, and continues to grow, in China is "very significant", despite macroeconomic headwinds, uncertainties around Beijing's so-called "common prosperity" drive, and challenges from Covid-19 control measures.

"Even at a lower GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate, it's something that actually grows faster than it does in the rest of the world," Mr Babej said, noting the common prosperity drive's impact on clients' international investing was hard to predict.

Even as China's economy is expected to slow sharply this year due to pandemic-induced challenges, among other things, the Citi Asia head said volatility and uncertainty related to China's economic and geopolitical challenges would continue in the short term but would not change the bank's strategy.

"We're in China for the long term," he said. "There are question marks in the light of the geopolitical situation and macroeconomic situation, but longer term we are big believers in the importance of China."

Citi has been expanding in China - in 2020 the bank received Beijing's approval to conduct custodian business and it applied for a brokerage licence in December last year, which would allow it to offer investment banking services to clients locally.

Mr Babej, however, admitted that not being able to travel to China, due to a mandatory weeks-long quarantine for inbound travellers as part of the country's zero-Covid approach, was a challenge for both clients and bankers of Citi.

"Our clients are much more willing to work over Zoom but at the end of the day, especially from a private bank view, not being able to travel is a challenge."

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