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Citigroup (NYSE: C ) rightly sees itself as a global bank. For the first quarter of 2013, fully 53.1% of its revenue came from overseas operations. But how many industry observers saw this move coming? Citi is set to open an office in Baghdad, Iraq.
You have to start somewhere
According to Financial Times, the announcement will be made next Monday. The office will only be a representative one, and Citi be prohibited from offering bank services outright, but it will be the first American bank to have an office of any sort in the war-torn country.
The Baghdad office will be set up this year, and the superbank has plans to open two more in the country, one of which will be in oil-rich Erbil. And that's really the point of setting up shop in Iraq: to tap into what Citi analysts see as a potential $2.0 trillion economy, fueled by oil production.
Corbat's big bet
Citi's overseas operations are more than its bread and butter, it's the bank's secret sauce. Overseas operations are where Citi's future growth is going to come from, and CEO Michael Corbat's bold move into Iraq is a smart one, if a bit risky.
The $2.0 trillion Iraq economy isn't expected to materialize until 2050, when, presumably, the country will have gotten its act together. At the moment, it doesn't look like it's in too big of a hurry to do so. Violence is still rampant there. The same day of the Boston bombings, 31 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in bombings across the country. Violence like that isn't only terrible for people, it's terrible for commerce.
Speaking of which, the oil industry that Citi is counting on for economic growth was devastated in the 2003 American invasion and ensuing fight to secure the country, as well as years of economic sanctions before that. But without risk, there's no reward, and it's reasonable to assume that decades from now, the people of Iraq will have sorted themselves and their economy out.
And right now, Citi is the leading global bank out of the Big Four, so its perfectly positioned to pursue this venture. For the first quarter of 2013, Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC ) Global Banking unit accounted for just 18.1% of its total revenue. For the same period, JPMorgan's (NYSE: JPM ) Corporate & Investment Banking unit accounted for 48.5% of its total revenue. And Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) isn't even in the game. At the moment, only 3% of its revenue comes from overseas, and CEO John Stumpf apparently likes it that way.
Whatever ultimately comes of this move into Iraq, one thing is certain: You can't fault Michael Corbat for lack of daring, or ambition. There's only so much room for growth in the U.S. banking market, especially at the big-bank end. As such, the Big Four will have to find growth overseas if they want that growth to be significant -- which, of course, is the only kind of growth investors want to see. Citi also already has big-time customers in the Middle East. All things considered, Corbat's bet in Iraq is a good one.
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