Citigroup plans to hire 1,500 to 1,700 people in Hong Kong as it seeks to tap the increasing capital flow between the city and mainland China and rising affluence in the Greater Bay Area.
The American bank plans to make the hires across its business, filling most of the positions this year, according to Angel Ng Yin-yee, the CEO of Citi Hong Kong and Macau. Citi also plans to increase its technology spending by 28 per cent as it expands its digital offerings, she said.
“The bulk of it will be our frontline people,” Ng said. “We’re also cautious we need to have the right product development, digital channel development people and compliance people, so we are also ramping up the middle office and the back office.”
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In 2020, the bank’s consumer business in Hong Kong recorded a 44 per cent increase in net new money, with credit card and new bank account clients utilising digital channels at a much higher rate than before against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, Ng said.
“When people cannot travel and they cannot do other things, they have their mind on wealth management, on how I am going to get better in terms of managing my finances,” Ng said. “We actually saw quite a good level of client activity in both the consumer side and the institutional side.”
On the investment banking side, the lender helped clients raise about US$40 billion in equity and debt deals in Hong Kong last year.
Citi’s move to expand its Hong Kong operations comes as other lenders are also hiring in the region in anticipation of a continued “homecoming” of US-listed Chinese firms seeking secondary listings in Hong Kong and opportunities to serve the mainland’s wealthy as China further opens its financial markets.
HSBC said in February that it plans to invest US$3.5 billion and hire more than 5,000 people in its wealth management business in Asia over the next five years as it targets high net worth and ultra high net worth clients.
Credit Suisse plans to triple its headcount in China over the next three years as it moves to take full control of its mainland securities joint venture and further expand its business in China, its CEO Thomas Gottstein said at the China Development Forum on March 20.
Even as banks increase their presence on the ground in the mainland, Hong Kong will remain an important international financial centre as China – and its rising affluence – continues to open up to the rest of the world, Ng said.
“The talent pool in Hong Kong is built over a long period of time,” Ng said. “Not just having bodies, but having the knowledge and the expertise we have in the financial industry. That gives us the confidence as well to be continuously navigating through all of the opportunity, as well as the risk.”
One big opportunity for banks in Hong Kong is the upcoming Wealth Connect scheme, which will allow banks in the city to market wealth management products directly to mainland clients. It follows similar connect schemes for stocks and bonds.
“This is a very creative infrastructure. It’s very innovative. Nobody has tried it before,” Ng said. “I don’t think it will be a ‘Big Bang’ opportunity to start with. It will be a pilot. It will be slow. It will be gradual. I think it opens us up into a bigger market – talking about multiples of what we have in Hong Kong – in the coming years.”
In recent weeks, some members of the financial community have pushed back over Hong Kong’s aggressive efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, saying three-week mandatory quarantines for returnees to the city and other measures could threaten the city’s standing.
Ng said the aggressive approach is a “necessary evil” to protect the city’s people.
“Our competitive advantage is talent, even in the financial industry,” she said. If we are not able to protect the health and well-being of the talent, that is also dampening the efficiency and the effectiveness of the financial system. I think we need to have a balance. We still need to put the health and the well-being of the people and of the city as the first priority.”
That said, Ng said relaxing the quarantine period somewhat would further interaction with clients outside the city, as well as help with relocation by expatriate hires and visits by overseas bank executives.
At the same time, Citi is adjusting to the new way of working post-Covid after the company’s bankers have spent months working from home or on marathon 12- to 14-hour video calls marketing a slew of initial public offerings to international investors.
Jane Fraser, Citi’s new CEO, said in a memo last week that the bank would adopt a new hybrid working system, where many employees would typically spend three days a week in the office and two at home.
Fraser also encouraged employees to avoid scheduling meetings outside traditional working hours and to adopt “Zoom-free Fridays” where video conferences are discouraged.
“Our staff are telling us they have Zoom fatigue,” Ng said. “It is easier right now for us to have back-to-back meeting because you don’t even have to walk. You just press a button and you jump from one to another. It’s non-stop. Therefore, we have dedicated a lot of our mind into how to help our staff in terms of wellness.”
That ranges from physical wellness concerns amid the pandemic to pressure employees have experienced from working at home for months, with their spouse and children in tow, Ng said.
For example, Citi is giving all of its staff an extra day of leave in May to unplug and reset and preparing a programme to provide home testing kits for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to its frontline staff in Hong Kong.
“Obviously, there are some things that we cannot avoid because we are a multinational company. Often myself, I have calls with New York and EMEA,” Ng said. “Because we are putting it on paper, on email, our staff will feel secured that they are empowered to make the right decision and say no.”
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