Jane Fraser, Citi
Citigroup Inc. is planning to exit retail-banking operations in Mexico - where it has its largest branch network in the world - as part of Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser’s continued push to overhaul the firm’s strategy. Image Credit: Bloomberg

New York: Citigroup Inc. is planning to exit retail-banking operations in Mexico - where it has its largest branch network in the world - as part of Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser’s continued push to overhaul the firm’s strategy.

The lender will keep its institutional businesses in the country, according to a filing Tuesday. The exit could ultimately take the form of a sale or a public-market alternative, and will be subject to regulatory approval, Citigroup said.

“Mexico is a priority market for Citi - that will not change,” Fraser said in a separate statement. “The decision to exit the consumer, small-business and middle-market banking businesses in Mexico is fully aligned with the principles of our strategy refresh.”

The move comes after Fraser last year announced she would exit 13 markets across Asia and Europe as part of her push to simplify Citigroup and focus on more-lucrative businesses. The units included in the intended exit in Mexico have about $44 billion in assets and take up about $4 billion in average allocated tangible common equity.

Citigroup shares closed flat in late trading in New York following the announcement. They have advanced 1% in the last 12 months compared with the 34 per cent gain of the 67-company S&P 500 Financials Index.

Citibanamex history

Citigroup in 2001 agreed to pay $12.5 billion for what was then known as Grupo Financiero Banamex-Accival, Mexico’s second-largest bank at the time. Over the years, the unit has come under scrutiny after the lender reported several incidents of fraud within the division.

Investors have long pushed executives at the bank to look into exiting the consumer-focused operations in Mexico, where it now does business as Citibanamex. But Citigroup has stood by its decision to operate a sprawling branch network and offer consumer and small-business services in the country. In 2016, the firm announced it would invest more than $1 billion in the unit over four years.

Enter Salinas

Billionaire Ricardo Salinas said on Twitter that he’s asked his staff to look into acquiring Citibanamex. Salinas is worth $13.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and is chairman of Banco Azteca and Grupo Elektra, a financial and retail firm that operates throughout Latin America.

Even as recently as last year, when Citigroup announced it would exit retail banking operations in Asia and Europe, Fraser offered praise for the business.

“Look, Mexico is a scaled franchise, when I compare Mexico to our Asian consumer franchise, they really benefit from the scale,” Fraser said in April. “The returns are good and there’s a lot of upside potential and the investments in digitization have really paid off. So while the country is going through a very challenging time at the moment, there’s a lot to like in the franchise over the longer term.”

While in some ways its an about-face for the Mexico operations specifically, Fraser is leaning on a playbook she’s honed over the years, including during her time as the bank’s head of Latin America. In 2015, less than a year after she’d taken that post, she led the company’s sale of retail-banking and credit-card operations in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.

The Argentina unit had opened in 1914, when it was the bank’s first non-U.S. branch. But Fraser argued that Citigroup wouldn’t be able to make the investments it needed to achieve proper scale in the three countries.

Mexico confidence

On Tuesday, Fraser vowed the bank would use the moves in Mexico to further simplify operations.

“We expect Mexico to be a major recipient of global investment and trade flows in the years ahead, and we are confident about the country’s trajectory,” Fraser said. “Citi is uniquely positioned to support cross-border capital markets activity and trade flows in and out of Mexico for our institutional clients and we will continue to make material investments in our institutional operations and market-leading hub there.”

Citigroup is set to report fourth-quarter earnings on Friday, and the lender promised to share more information about the exit then.

“The strategy refresh Citi has undertaken will result in a stronger, more focused bank,” Citigroup Chief Financial Officer Mark Mason said in the statement. “We will execute a targeted consumer strategy, double down in wealth and focus on our higher-returning institutional businesses where we have competitive advantages.”