Three Los Angeles-area banks, all catering to Asian-Americans, are racing to the Internet to capture more of the area's formidable international trade finance business.
The three are Manufacturers Bank and Sanwa Bank of California in Los Angeles, both units of big Japanese banks, and $2.3 billion-asset East West Bank in nearby San Marino.
The only locally based bank that already provides Internet letters of credit is Imperial Bank of Inglewood, which Detroit-based Comerica Inc. is buying. Manufacturers, owned by Sakura Bank Ltd. in Tokyo, and East West say they expect to do so in a few months. Sanwa, owned by Sanwa Bank Ltd. of Osaka, says six months to a year.
"It's an opportunity to get a better slice of the market," said Jenny Wu, senior vice president at Manufacturers.
Bankers say the Internet can revolutionize international trade finance. Traditionally, bank customers have had to wait as long as two weeks for a letter of credit - the backbone of transactions between importers and exporters - because banks have had to process the reams of paperwork manually. Automating the process will cut the wait to hours, bankers say.
The Internet services will be available on the banks' Web sites. Until then, Sanwa and Manufacturers are providing dial-up services, in which customers connect to the bank's computers by modem. Manufacturers introduced such a service last week; Sanwa already had one.
East West still processes its letters of credit manually.
For the dial-up services, banks install proprietary software on customers' computers, Ms. Wu said. A computer-transmitted application for a letter of credit to buy imports can be approved within several hours, and the system can quickly notify an exporter than letters of credit for an overseas buyer have been approved.
"It saves the customer time and money, because there's less paperwork, and it can improve the accuracy of letters of credit, because customers can review errors once it's on the bank's system," Ms. Wu said.
Trade finance is big business in Southern California. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the busiest the United States, handling more than $170 billion in imports and exports, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.
And time and accuracy can make or break an overseas deal, said Ren Carague, Manufacturers' vice president of international operations. With fast automated letter of credits "an exporter doesn't have to wait for days for the letter of credit to arrive before shipping his merchandise; he can ship it out that day," Mr. Carague said. "Also, an accurate letter of credit helps exporters to better control their schedule of shipments."
Moreover, automation makes it unnecessary for customers to resubmit entire letters of credit for each transaction, as they must do when the documents were manually processed. "Most of what they need for the letter of credit is already on the system," Ms. Wu said.
But though Internet letters of credit services may make life easier for bank customers, they will not necessarily persuade them to switch from a bank that still processes its letters of credit manually, according to one consultant.
"Given all that banks do for customers, I don't think that customers would rate their banks based on their ability" to issue letters of credit through the Internet, said Avivah Litan, vice president of payment services for GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn. "It's not a make-or-break situation. It's those exceptional glitches when banks end up spending months to issue a letter of credit that will cause a bank to lose a customer."