Citigroup to Boost China Staff to 12,000 in 3 Years

Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup Inc.
Vikram Pandit, chief executive officer of Citigroup Inc. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Citigroup Inc. plans to almost triple its workforce in China to as many as 12,000 people in the next three years, intensifying its rivalry with HSBC Holdings Plc in the world’s fastest-growing major economy.

The New York-based bank will hire more in China than in any other Asia-Pacific country, Stephen Bird, Citigroup’s co-chief executive officer for the region, said yesterday in an interview. The expansion may make China Citigroup’s third-largest market by staff, after the U.S. and Mexico, said spokesman James Griffiths.

Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit is raising his bet on China, where banks extended a record $1.4 trillion of new loans last year. Unlike HSBC and Standard Chartered Plc, Citigroup has no plans to sell shares in China and will instead fund expansion with money generated in Asia, Bird said on Aug. 25.

“This is a strong message from Citigroup that signals the bank’s focus and dedication to the country,” said Michael Werner, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in Hong Kong. “China is one of the most attractive and profitable countries in the world to be operate a bank.”

Citigroup has 4,500 employees in China and 50,000 in Asia, according to Griffiths. Standard Chartered, the U.K. bank that gets more than three-quarters of profit from Asia, has more than 4,000 employees at its China unit. HSBC, Europe’s largest lender by market value, has more than 5,000. Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. had 390,000 workers at the end of 2009.

“China is one of Citi’s priority markets globally,” said Bird, 43. “We have aggressive consumer banking expansion plans and want to open branches as fast as regulators in China will let us.”

Branch Expansion

Citigroup has 29 outlets in the country and plans to add 10 more this year. That will still leave it short of HSBC’s 102 outlets and the 59 operated by Standard Chartered.

Bird said consumer and institutional banking will account for about 80 percent of new hiring in China. The remainder will mainly be for technology support and data processing, he said.

China, which opened its banking industry to overseas companies in December 2006, is luring foreign lenders scarred by the global financial crisis that forced Citigroup into a $45 billion bailout. HSBC is focusing on emerging markets like China following losses at its U.S. unit.

Commercial banking in China has “healthy profitability” because of regulated interest rates and 30 percent annual growth in fee-based services such as custody, settlement and credit cards, said Werner.

Return on Equity

“The more than 20 percent returns on equity that domestic banks generate are very attractive, especially in relation to the more developed markets,” he said.

Citigroup almost doubled profit in China to 1.3 billion yuan ($191 million) in 2008, on a 46 percent revenue increase. The company hasn’t published 2009 earnings for the country, Griffiths said.

The bank owns 20 percent of Guangdong Development Bank Co., a lender based in the southern Guangzhou city. It also owns about 3 percent of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Co.

Bird said he’s “optimistic” about finding a local partner for a securities underwriting business in China, a move that would allow Citigroup to compete with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and UBS AG in arranging yuan-denominated share and bond sales.

Earnings Driver

Asia was the largest contributor to Citigroup’s earnings in 2008 and 2009, a period during which it lost $29.3 billion. Citigroup recorded a first-half profit of $2.5 billion for the region on $7.26 billion of revenue.

“We’re investing more in Asia than at any time in our history,” said Bird.

Citigroup’s deposits in Asia rose 20 percent in June from a year earlier to a record $220 billion, Griffiths said. It offers mobile banking in most of the 18 markets in the region it serves, and started retail banking in Vietnam in the past year, he said.

The bank is also expanding in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where it has 66 and 41 branches respectively, according to Bird.

“Just a couple of years ago we were under 50 branches in Greater China and in the next six months we should hit the 150 mark,” he said.

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