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Citigroup Inc.’s equities desks, undersized among Wall Street’s giants, are proving strong enough to lift the firm to a record quarterly profit just as a new chief executive officer takes the helm.
The bank reaped the most revenue from stock trading in the first quarter since 2009, while fees from underwriting shares quadrupled, helped by the firm’s dominance in taking blank-check companies known as SPACs to public markets. That offset a slump in revenue from Citigroup’s massive fixed-income trading division. The bank also said it will exit retail banking in 13 markets across Asia and Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as part of CEO Jane Fraser’s ongoing review of the firm’s strategy.
“It’s been a better-than-expected start to the year,” Fraser, who took over last month, said in a statement Thursday. She credited the “strong performance” of the company’s Wall Street operations and said the firm is optimistic about its outlook for the economy.
Citigroup has raised more than any other bank for special-purpose acquisition companies this year, as managers of the vehicles set out to hunt unspecified takeover targets. That helped the firm reap US$876 million in fees from equity underwriting. Quarterly stock-trading revenue, typically less than US$1 billion at Citigroup, surged to US$1.48 billion.
But Citigroup is better known for its prowess in foreign exchange -- markets that remained sleepy during the period. The CBOE EuroCurrency Volatility Index, which measures swings in euro-dollar options, dropped for the fourth consecutive quarter as 2021 began, the longest streak since the start of 2008.
Altogether, Citigroup’s revenue from trading fixed-income, currencies and commodities slipped 5 per cent to US$4.55 billion. While that topped analyst estimates, it paled in comparison to the 31 and 15 per cent gains posted on Wednesday by rivals Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., respectively.
Total revenue in the quarter slipped to US$19.33 billion, hurt by a 14 per cent drop in revenue from the firm’s sprawling global consumer bank. Net income climbed to US$7.94 billion, topping the US$5.1 billion projected by analysts.
Uncertain is whether the SPAC boom may continue. Regulators in the U.S. are voicing concerns that already have put the brakes on new deals this quarter.
Even still, Fraser can invest some of Citi’s haul into upgrading the firm’s controls and technology after regulators dinged the company for deficiencies last year. Those efforts contributed to a 4 per cent increase in expenses to US$11.07 billion in the first quarter, albeit below the US$11.17 billion estimated by analysts.
With its retail banking exits from markets across Asia and EMEA, the bank will instead operate its consumer-banking franchise in both regions from four wealth centers in Singapore, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and London, it said.
Meanwhile, the firm is pointing to signs of an improving economy. The lender released US$3.85 billion that it previously stockpiled to cover bad loans as the pandemic sent unemployment soaring and shuttered businesses across the country last year.
One bright spot at the start of 2021 was the end to a slide in spending on Citigroup cards, which climbed 1 per cent in the first three months. Still, the world’s largest credit-card issuer saw balances on those cards fall 14 per cent as consumers socked away savings and avoided racking up new debt. Banks including JPMorgan have suggested that’s evidence that Americans have their finances in order and are ready to spend once vaccinations unleash commerce.
“This is the healthiest we have seen the consumer emerge from a crisis in recent history,” Fraser said.