Citi may retain Russian banking licence despite trying to sell commercial arm

Citigroup may retain a banking licence and some operations in Russia, chief executive Jane Fraser said, even as it tries to sell its consumer and commercial arms in the country following the war with Ukraine.

The US lender with the largest business in Russia had been looking to sell its consumer unit in the country before the war started and said in March that it would stop taking on new clients there, adding in April that it would divest “significant portions” of its local business.

However, when asked on Tuesday whether Citi would try to keep its licences, Fraser said: “We don’t know yet, we haven’t made a decision on exactly what size we will be,” adding that the bank “will just be materially smaller [in Russia] than it has been”.

The British-American executive, who took over last year, said she hoped peace talks with Russia “will take hold” but for the time being Citi was “not quite sure what the end state looks like”.

Western banks have set aside billions of dollars in provisions since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February to brace themselves for potential losses related to sanctions and looming recessions.

Citi stood to lose about $3bn if all its business in Russia “went really awry”, Fraser told journalists in Frankfurt. She added that the lender’s direct exposure was largely limited to the capital still held in the country, and that just “0.3 per cent of [the bank’s] risk-weighted assets” were in Russia.

Fraser did not comment on reports that Citi was selling its retail franchise in Russia to Expobank, the private lender, but said it was “not an easy environment to make sure that you will actually be able to close a deal”, adding that the group was divesting its businesses “as fast as we can”.

“You’re not selling Coca-Cola on a retail shelf that you can just shut off tomorrow,” she said of the sale. “It takes a bit more time.”

Other international banks with large footprints in Russia are plotting their exits from the country. Western European lenders in the region include Austria’s Raiffeisen Bank and Italy’s UniCredit.

France’s Société Générale had the largest presence in the country and became the first foreign bank to strike a deal when it announced plans to sell its Russian operations to a Russian investor in April, taking a €3.1bn hit in the process.

Fraser said Citi was remaining in Russia for the time being to help multinational clients, some of whom were trying to wind up their businesses.

“These are pharma companies, these are the food companies, technology firms,” she said.

“We’ve been helping them — many of them are exiting or shrinking down their operations — and if your bank isn’t there doing the payroll or helping you with that exit process, it is very hard to actually achieve that.”

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