Mexico's president wants Mexicans to buy Citigroup unit

FILE - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris in her office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Washington. President Lopez Obrador announced on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, that he has come down with COVID-19 a second time, as coronavirus infections spike in Mexico and virus tests become scarce. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) (Alex Brandon, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Thursday he hopes Mexican investors buy the local subsidiary of Citigroup.

In a post on social media, the president said that “we would like this bank to be Mexicanized,” contending that foreign bankers often take profits abroad rather than re-invest them in Mexico.

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The U.S. banking giant Citigroup announced Tuesday it would sell its Citibanamex retail banking operations in Mexico as part of a worldwide strategy to focus on the corporate market.

López Obrador’s comment is likely to draw scrutiny, given his sometimes close, sometimes troubled relations with two Mexican business magnates.

One, retail and banking magnate Ricardo Salinas Pliego, wrote in his Twitter account he was weighing a bid for the bank. Salinas Pliego already runs the smaller Banco Azteca.

“I have always believed in and invested in Mexico and Mexicans,” Salinas Pliego wrote. “For that reason, I have asked my team to analyze the advisability of acquiring Citibanamex, and doubling down my bet on Mexico, Mexicans and their future.”

López Obrador gave the U.S. ambassadorship to a former associate of Salinas Pliego. He has also included the tycoon in government business deals and proposed a bill on dollar purchases by the central bank that analysts say would have benefitted Sanlinas Pliego. That proposal was later largely dropped.

But many doubt Salinas Pliego could raise the $12 billion to $15 billion that analysts think Citibanamex might cost.

The other magnate, Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man, has interests mainly in telecoms and construction, but also owns a small bank.

While the president has cordial relations with Slim — the two were seen breakfasting together recently — Slim has also been bruised by allegations of construction defects on an elevated subway line in Mexico City that collapsed last year, killing 26 people. Slim’s company has pledged to repair the line at its own expense.

Mexican authorities said Wednesday they are going to keep a close eye on Citigroup’s proposed sale, noting the transaction poses “delicate” regulatory issues.

Citibanamex is Mexico’s third-largest bank and regulators are apparently concerned that whoever acquires it could accumulate too big a share of the banking market.

The country’s Finance Department said in a statement Wednesday, “The exit of such a large retail bank from our country poses delicate questions for finance and regulatory authorities ... including the fundamental issue of market concentration.”

The president made his remarks about Citibanamex in a video posted to his social media accounts. López Obrador has been absent from his usual morning news briefings while he recovers from COVID-19, and has been posting videos from his office instead.

López Obrador said he was recovering and had never had serious symptoms, claiming “this variant has very light symptoms. It's the equivalent of a cold." Officials have suggested, but not confirmed, he has the omicron variant.

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