Global banks curb China travel

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Men walk past a Citibank sign outside its Tokyo branch November 5, 2007. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Several global banks including Citigroup and Standard Chartered have asked their private banking staff to postpone or reconsider travel to China after authorities there prevented a UBS banker from leaving the country, sources said.

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BNP Paribas and JPMorgan also asked their private banking employees to reconsider their China travel plans after the authorities’ action against the UBS banker, two people said.

The Singapore-based UBS banker, who is a client relationship manager in the Swiss bank’s wealth management unit, still has her passport, but was last week asked to delay her departure from Beijing and remain in China to meet with local authority officials this week. Her identity was not known.

The purpose of the meeting with Chinese authorities is not clear. UBS has declined to comment on the matter. However, the uncertainty has led the Swiss bank, and now several of its rivals, to require their private banking staff carefully consider trips to China, the sources said.

Their caution highlights the risks involved for the global private banks in pursuing what is arguably the biggest opportunity worldwide in the wealth management business.

China is the biggest growth driver of the wealth industry in Asia with its large and growing pool of millionaires and billionaires spawned by the country’s booming technology sector, making it a key battleground for global private banks.

But its financial sector is under sharp scrutiny as Beijing attempts to lower high debt levels in the economy and rein in the flow of capital outside the country to shore up the yuan, meaning there is very little room for error by industry players.

UBS is unusual in having an onshore wealth management business in China as well as its offshore operations, but almost all other banks advise wealthy Chinese individuals from offshore locations mainly in Hong Kong and Singapore.

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