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Citi expects strong performance from its Asia equities business

Revenue up 33% in H1 2018, on track for the biggest annual growth in a decade

Hong Kong

CITIGROUP Inc predicts its Asia equities business will post its best results since the financial crisis, which could help the global firm sustain flagging momentum.

Revenue increased 33 per cent in the first half of 2018 compared with the previous year, and is on track for the biggest annual growth in a decade, Richard Heyes, the Hong Kong-based Asia-Pacific head of equities, said. He's betting that investments in technology made during years of rebuilding and recent senior hires at the unit will provide a boost even as markets worldwide get more challenging.

Mr Heyes's Asia equities outlook bodes well for the New York-based bank, whose trading results underperformed its US rivals in the second quarter, mainly due to a drop in fixed income revenue. The first half often yields the most overall revenue for US banks, meaning it can get harder to improve performance as the year progresses.

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American firms are also benefiting from difficulties at their European competitors and European Union regulations known as MiFID II that are pushing clients towards large brokerages that offer a wide range of services under one roof, according to Mr Heyes.

"The operating environment, with a number of European banks struggling, has been a solid source for market share gain," Mr Heyes said. "We are adding clients due to dislocation at some banks."

Citigroup tied with Credit Suisse Group AG for third place last year in Asian equity trading outside of Japan and Australia, improving from fifth place in 2015, according to data from Greenwich Associates.

Citigroup gained "significant" market share this year and aims to crack the top five in Asian equities, in line with a global pledge, Mr Heyes said, without sharing more details on the ranking he looks at.

The global firm spent three years - 2012 to 2015 - rebuilding under chief executive officer Mike Corbat, who cut jobs and plowed millions into technology upgrades.

"They still have some work to do in order to be considered a top five player in Asian equities," said Neil MacKinnon, a director at the Lawson Practice, an Asian search boutique focused on global markets and hedge funds.

"However, it is fair to say the street recognises that they are following through on their commitment to the business. This is reflected in the increase of interest in people looking to join Citi's equity and prime finance business."

Citigroup continues to invest in technology, Mr MacKinnon said. Such investments have let the division automate some processes and cut costs by about 10 per cent over the past three years, according to Mr Heyes. His unit helped the firm's global equities business generate the most revenue since 2010 in the first quarter, though overall second-quarter revenue came in lower than estimated amid what the bank called a "challenging" market environment.

Mr Heyes's division plans to meet its full-year forecast by boosting derivatives and prime finance offerings, after benefiting from a rise in block trades and initial public offerings that the bank worked on earlier in the year. Citigroup is ranked second in equity offerings in the region this year, its best showing since 2005. It was ranked fifth in 2017, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The division is also hiring for senior roles. Some 30 executives have joined Citigroup's equities business since last July, including four managing directors. While Mr Heyes declined to share an overall headcount, the hiring contrasts with rivals such as Deutsche Bank AG, which has been cutting onshore sales and derivatives coverage in the Asia-Pacific, and Credit Suisse, which culled jobs in trading, sales and prime brokerage in the region as it completed its restructuring last year.

Mr Heyes said Citigroup stands to benefit from changes occurring in Europe due to the MiFID II regulations, which among other things abolished internal trading venues used by banks to match client orders and forced investment firms to pay for research separately from brokerage fees.

The changes are pushing clients to work with fewer brokerages that offer a wide range of services, he said, and Citi-group's global presence and relationships with hundreds of companies will help the bank win business.

"MiFID II will lead to consolidation, which I argue very strongly we're extremely well-placed to benefit from," he said. BLOOMBERG