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Banks Bet on Wealthy Clients Who Got Even Richer During Pandemic

The world’s 500 richest people added $1.8 trillion to their combined net worth last year, lifting the total to $7.6 trillion.

(Bloomberg) -- As the nation’s banking giants steer their way out of the pandemic, they’re focused on a key category of clients: wealthy people.

Citigroup Inc. plans to “double down on wealth” and concentrate its efforts on international hubs popular among high earners: Singapore, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates and London, the company said when it announced earnings last week. At Bank of America Corp., affluent clients’ account balances surged 31% to a record $3.5 trillion, lifted by a buoyant stock market, and it added more than 7,000 households in the first quarter. New assets at Morgan Stanley jumped.

“I could talk for hours on this one -- I think we’re incredibly well-positioned in wealth,” Jane Fraser, Citigroup’s new chief executive officer, told analysts last week. Focusing on major markets means “our capital, investment dollars and other resources are better-deployed against higher-returning opportunities in wealth management,” she said.

The world’s 500 richest people added $1.8 trillion to their combined net worth last year, lifting the total to $7.6 trillion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In the U.S., the economic resurgence has affected people in wildly uneven ways, with many Americans growing wealthier amid roaring stock and home prices even as almost 10 million people remain unemployed. Some are calling it a “K-shaped recovery.”

“Demand for advice is surging,” said Andy Sieg, president of Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. “Over the next 10 or 20 years, we see a bull market for advice driven by the complexity of issues around the world and their impact on how people think about and manage their financial lives.”

The business of catering to the ultra-rich isn’t always a safe bet: Morgan Stanley surprised investors Friday by announcing a $911 million hit from the collapse of Archegos Capital Management, a family office that imploded last month after making a series of huge leveraged trades. That loss overshadowed strong performance elsewhere, with the bank’s wealth-management division bringing in record new assets of $105 billion in the first quarter, helped by the acquisition of E*Trade.

“This quarter is reflective of a very different view of that wealth management business,” Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman told analysts on a conference call Friday. “E*Trade is clearly a factor in it but it’s by no means the only factor. If you took out E*Trade, the organic growth was tremendous in the core business.”

--With assistance from Olivia Rockeman.

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