In pursuit of the mass affluent
By Rahul Jacob
Published: November 18 2001 17:58 | Last Updated: November 18 2001 21:25

People Dossier/Citibank Logo

Citibank once famously made a virtue out of necessity. In the early 1980s, battling against regulations in many Asian countries that severely limited the number of branches foreign banks could open, Citibank - part of Citigroup, the world's largest financial services group - segmented the banking market.

Instead of merely aiming at the mass market, it made wealthy customers its target with its Citigold offering. This featured separate plush enclaves for Citigold clientele and privileges ranging from multi-currency deposits to a welcoming cup of tea.

The strategy paid off. Last year Citibank's consumer bank in Asia, including Japan and Australia, made $702m in net profit on revenues of $2.8bn. If its Asian bank had been a separate entity, its profits would have put it in the top half of the Fortune Global 500.

Two decades on, Citibank is ready for something new. It is planning to offer investment advice and a wider menu of investment options to the growing number of "mass affluent" in Asia - customers with investable assets of $100,000 or more.

The size of the market for these services is indisputable. Citibank estimates 10m people in Asia have assets of more than $100,000.

There is also plenty of pent-up demand for wealth management services. In spite of their image, Asians are not smart investors who in, say, Hong Kong check the Hang Seng index hourly, size up the implications of the day's dollar/yen level by lunchtime and punt on an apartment on the way home.

In fact, the evidence all points the other way. Wealthy investors in the region put most of their money in property and cash deposits and less than a third in equities. "Most customers have portfolios by default rather than by design. People spend more time planning their annual vacations than they do on their retirement planning," says Malik Sarwar, regional director, investment business, for Citigold Asia.

The vast majority of wealth in Asia is managed by individuals - the ratio of self-managed to professionally managed wealth in Asia is 3.7; in the US, that number is 0.6. Judging from the concentration of Asian wealth in property and fixed deposits, it is not managed very well.

Banks are eager for new business. Since the financial crisis of 1997-98 they have been squeezed by a sharp drop in loan demand and collapsing margins on once-reliable money-spinners such as mortgages. They are thus rushing to welcome well-heeled customers as never before.

Every large bank wants a piece of the action. HSBC has launched a "Premier" service for customers in the region. This pre-dates Citibank's service but the minimum account size is only half as big and HSBC is careful not to overstate its claims for the offering.

"What we don't do with Premier is offer discretionary management. For a high net worth individual, that's the private banking proposition," says Paul Thurston, head of personal financial services at HSBC in Hong Kong.

By contrast, Citibank makes no secret of the scale of its ambitions in the mass-affluent market. In July, the bank began a splashy marketing campaign for its new offering in Hong Kong. This month it rolled out its "wealth management" service in South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Citibank's wealth management offering is a mixture of investment advice and tools to help customers manage their wealth by themselves. The bank offers quarterly reviews of a customer's portfolio and goals conducted by dedicated relationship managers - which it says is an industry first.

Citibank aspires to a more advisory role than most retail banks. About 1,900 mutual funds are registered in Hong Kong, for instance, but Citibank is recommending only 30. "For the customer [investing can] be very confusing. We believe we can provide clarity," says Frits Seegers, executive vice-president of Citibank's consumer bank in Asia.

As a strategy this is compelling - and it has met with some early success. In Hong Kong, the bank's Citigold division has experienced a 70 per cent increase in new customers since the launch of the enhanced Citigold programme in July.

"We're trying to offer elements of private banking and create a bridge between [retail and private banking]," says Jonathan Larsen, a former management consultant who is regional head of Citigold.

However, to succeed over the long term even the best strategy needs implementing and here Citibank faces a harder task. Analysts say banks across Asia are struggling to recruit employees with skills that match the needs of the region's newly rich. "Retail banks are much better at marketing than they are at execution in this segment," says a private banker at a large US financial services firm.

Financial columnists have castigated large banks in Hong Kong for taking advantage of the current market volatility to push capital guaranteed funds on to customers. In many cases, such funds have come with high up-front fees and high management fees and have even underperformed term de-posits.

A visit to one of Citibank's branches appears to bear out much of this criticism. The initial diagnosis of a prospective customer's portfolio gets off to a bad start. The "relationship manager" neglects to ask about existing investments, which may be skewed to one region or asset class, even though this is typically part of Citibank's routine.

The money to be invested is then plugged into a software program, which delivers portfolio recommendations based on the customer's risk profile, age and investment goals. Many of the mutual funds on offer come with punishing 5.25 per cent front-end sales fees. These are virtually identical to the fees investors would pay if they invested the money direct with those fund management houses in Hong Kong.

If you enquire about online stock trading, you discover that Citibank wealth management is unable to offer customers in this segment facilities for US stocks - though it plans to provide this in the next 12 months. The customer experience does not seem to compare well with that offered by US fund management companies such as Fidelity. These provide a better-informed service to ordinary retail investors through telephone representatives operating out of call centres in such places as Utah.

Citibank executives say their wealth management service does not claim to provide services on a par with private banking, which is for customers with assets of more than $100,000. Instead, the bank is seeking to widen the range of services its clients receive - offering hedge funds, for instance, to a clientele that traditionally has not had access to them.

The problem may be that, like mass affluence, the mass customisation of private banking is something of a contradiction in terms. The time and effort required are arguably worth a bank's while only if a customer is committing $1m or more to it, not $100,000.

A Merrill Lynch/Cap Gemini Ernst & Young study of wealth creation across the globe noted earlier this year: "The most important success factor [in providing financial services to this segment] may well be well trained, highly knowledgeable relationship managers who understand specialised products and how to explain their benefits to clients."

In Asia, at least, the first efforts at providing such services to the mass affluent still have some way to go.

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