HONG KONG: Citigroup expects its China wealth management client base to grow faster in 2019 than last year, at more than 30 per cent, the bank's country chief said, despite the world's second-largest economy slowing and feeling the pain of a trade war.
Citi's total number of wealth management clients in China, with at least one million yuan (US$148,610.49) in investable assets, grew 21 per cent last year, Christine Lam told Reuters in an interview.
"The fact there's significant accumulation of wealth in China, that is not going to change," said the Citi veteran who has worked at the bank for more than three decades and was named China chief executive in 2016.
Citi is planning to invest more in digital initiatives to help expand its distribution reach and take a bigger share of the onshore wealth management business in China, she said.
Foreign banks including Citi, HSBC and Standard Chartered have been investing heavily in courting the mass affluent - those with investable assets of between US$100,000 and US$1 million - in China.
The banks are bullish about the medium-to-long-term growth prospects in the country with the world's fastest-growing pool of wealth, even as a bruising trade war with the United States dragged the economy last year to its slowest growth in nearly three decades and caused volatility in markets.
Chinese citizens collectively held investable financial assets of around 133 trillion yuan at end-2017 and the pool would rise to 175 trillion yuan by 2020, consultancy PwC said in a report in October.
Regulatory measures to boost scrutiny and transparency in the wealth management business augur well for foreign players already used to close regulatory scrutiny, it said.
Apart from cracking down on the sale of shadow banking-linked wealth products, China is also getting local banks to set up separate subsidiaries for their wealth management business for better oversight.
Lam said that those regulatory initiatives would "educate investors about risk and suitability – and that's good for us".
China is one of Citi's 10 markets in Asia that generate over US$500 million in revenue annually.
Besides wealth management, the bank's onshore China businesses include retail, corporate and commercial banking.
Under new rules announced by Beijing in late 2017, foreign firms can now own 51 per cent of an onshore Chinese securities joint venture, which provides debt and equity underwriting and financial advisory services.
Late last year, Citi agreed to sell its minority stake in its China brokerage joint venture to its Chinese partner, Orient, paving the way for the US bank to set up a majority-owned underwriting and trading business.
Lam said that Citi was currently in talks to find a potential partner for the new securities business and that the new venture would have additional offerings such as equities trading.