By Sinead Cruise and Lawrence White
LONDON (Reuters) - Barclays is plotting a revival of its Asian investment bank, defying activist Edward Bramson just weeks after he failed to convince fellow shareholders to back radical cuts to the British bank's trading arm.
Chief Executive Jes Staley wants to make Barclays Europe's premier investment bank and then take on its global rivals by building up beyond its core European and U.S. markets.
"Our commitment to the capital markets platform has meant we may be pulling away from the pack of European competitors now," the 62-year-old American-born banker told Reuters.
"Today we see our peers and principal competition as being the U.S. banks – and we can, and do, compete with them," Staley says of the business he hopes will be his greatest legacy.
Staley and his executive committee (ExCo) want to regrow Barclays' Asian markets business with dozens of hires in the next two to three years, expanding its global banking business there and reversing a 2016 regional retrenchment.
As Europe's economic fortunes wane and competition in the U.S. tightens, selective expansion in Asia might be Barclays' best shot at increasing market share.
"If you want to be relevant to global clients, you have to be in Asia," Stephen Dainton, head of global markets at Barclays, told Reuters.
Staley has been ruthless in his mission to preserve and promote the Barclays corporate and investment bank (CIB) since Bramson appeared on its shareholder register two years ago, moving closer to the day-to-day operation of its business after ousting investment bank boss Tim Throsby in March.
"That clear and unequivocal backing from the top really matters to colleagues in the CIB and I'm glad to give it," said Staley, who has also driven fresh forays into higher-risk, higher-reward businesses including leveraged finance and global securitisation. .
Staley's direct approach is translating into investment in technology and new hires, Barclays executives said.
Barclays' head of global banking Joe McGrath says his business could hire up to 200 staff in the next two to three years, although this could be fewer if deal flow is slower and the plan depends on improving profitability in the UK and U.S.
"I want to invest in Asia and we will invest in the near term on a very measured basis but at some point, we'll need to take a harder look at what we want to do in a bigger way," McGrath told Reuters, adding that growth markets like China and Southeast Asia will offer investment banking opportunities.
The move to expand the global footprint of the Barclays investment bank is gutsy in view of its recent underperformance.
First quarter returns in the investment banking business fell to 9.5% from 13.2% a year ago, leaving group targets for 9% returns on tangible equity close but unachieved.
Investors also want to see Staley's talk of progress better reflected in its share price, which has fallen 30 percent since he took the top job in December 2015.
Despite this slump, Barclays has been the second-best performer among European investment banks since Staley's arrival.
"We've still got a way to go to get to the returns we should be generating, and I want to more directly support that effort," Staley said of the demands ahead.
Barclays wants to grow its Asian headcount in the markets business by 10-11%, or around 60 people, over the next two to three years, Dainton said, adding that in the medium term Asia could deliver between 15-20% of the group's total revenues, up from 10% now.
But it is sidestepping the Asia cash equities business it closed in 2016 and hiring in other trading businesses that play more to Barclays' traditional strengths.
These include emerging markets-focused business in Singapore, its Hong Kong-based credit trading desk, foreign exchange, and electronic trading capabilities.
"It's critically important for us that we have good connectivity across the three financial centres, Europe, U.S. and Asia," Kristen Macleod, managing director of Barclays' forex sales business in New York, said.
"The markets business has outperformed our U.S. peers for six consecutive quarters …. we are one of the few banks on the street right now that are investing and growing this business."
Insiders say they like Staley's hands-to-the-pump attitude, sharing anecdotes of him pitching clients and jumping on aeroplanes to seal deals and poach talent from other banks.
But as demands of the investment bank grow, Staley is relying on the likes of McGrath, Dainton and his inner circle to quell calls he might be neglecting other parts of the bank.
Although fallout from last month's shake-up in the investment bank's pay structure, tying bonus payouts to profits generated in a given time period, could tarnish Barclays' year, Staley's lieutenants are in no doubt what they have to do.
"The overarching theme in these ExCo meetings is that it is mission critical we drive results and generate returns for our shareholders, sooner rather than later," Macleod said.
(Reporting by Sinead Cruise and Lawrence White, Editing by Alexander Smith)