Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Citigroup’s trading division is showing it doesn’t need as many people to generate the same revenue.

Two months into a plan to eliminate about 400 staff from the business, Citigroup joined rivals in posting trading results that defied analysts’ pessimism, slipping less than 1% in an especially tumultuous quarter. Analysts had predicted a 4% drop. Stronger-than-estimated revenue from investment banking and credit cards added to the coup.

The cull, which began by the dozens in July, is part of CEO Michael Corbat’s push to make good on the bank’s long-promised and elusive efficiency goal. The results are a sign — albeit preliminary — that the firm may be able to avoid the feedback loop that’s dogged many competitors: efforts to pare expenses also risk cutting business.

Fixed-income trading, the bank’s biggest source of revenue from Wall Street, was unchanged, bolstered by G-10 rates and currencies.

“Despite an unpredictable environment throughout the quarter, we continue to deliver on our strategy,” Corbat said in a statement announcing the results.

Goldman Sachs Group’s traders turned in revenue of $3.29bn  in the third quarter, more than analysts had anticipated, as the bank saw strength in its commodities and interest rate activity. JPMorgan Chase said trading revenue climbed 14%, more than the 7.5% gain analysts had predicted.

Analysts had predicted Citigroup would not be able to maintain trading revenue at the heightened level it had jumped to by surprise during 2018’s third quarter. This time, there were several unusual events: The Federal Reserve reduced its benchmark interest rate in late July for the first time in over a decade. Several weeks later, the Fed was forced to intervene in repo markets to alleviate a cash crunch.

The Trump administration’s trade negotiations also kept stock markets swinging, fuelling volatility that can help or burn banks facilitating transactions. Citigroup’s revenue from equities trading slipped 4%, but that business is much smaller than what it derives from fixed-income, currencies and commodities.

The bank is eliminating jobs and investing in new technology to save it at least $500m in 2019 as it seeks to improve an efficiency ratio that has disappointed investors in the past. Still, expenses proved stubborn in the quarter, ticking up 1.5% to surpass analysts’ estimates. The bank said it spent more on efforts to boost future earnings.

Citigroup’s investment bankers posted a surprise increase in revenue, led by a 7% jump in debt underwriting. Revenue from advising corporations on mergers and acquisitions was helped by deals in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Akin to stock trading, equity underwriting slipped amid the market turmoil. Concern that start-ups may be overvalued after a long market rally hurt a number of prominent initial public offerings in recent months.

As the world’s largest credit-card issuer, Citigroup has been focused on reducing the number of promotional offerings on its card products. It’s a move that helped third-quarter results as revenue from the bank’s proprietary card business in North America climbed 11% to $2.3bn. Overall spending on the firm’s cards climbed 5% to $142bn in the quarter.