U.S. banks, overcoming a long-standing reluctance to put cash on the table to buy companies in Latin America, are stepping up the pace of their deals.
Brazilian banking regulators last week approved American Express Bank Ltd.'s offer to buy Banco SRL and authorized NationsBank Corp. to bid for Banco Liberal. Citicorp recently bought Banca Confia in Mexico, and BankBoston Corp. agreed to buy Deutsche Bank's Argentine retail and middle- market operations.
Last year, in addition, Wachovia Corp. acquired a majority stake in a Brazilian investment bank.
American Express Bank would pay $37 million to acquire 50% of Banco SRL as part of a bid to expand lending and asset management in Brazil.
But NationsBank officials were at pains to emphasize that they have not made a final decision on Banco Liberal.
"This is by no means a done deal," said a spokeswoman for NationsBank.
"We clearly have an interest in expanding our investment banking capabilities in Brazil, and this gives us a chance to begin a process of due diligence."
American Express indicated several months ago that it was planning to bid for Banco SRL. NationsBank has been steadily expanding in Latin America over the last few months, opening offices in Bogota, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo.
In May, NationsBank also participated in the acquisition of the Brazilian mining conglomerate Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, by organizing a $1.2 billion bridge loan for the buyer, Companhia de Siderurgica Nacional.
Robert D. Bailey, senior international banking executive at Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank, said that the decision to expand in Brazil remains unaffected by current financial turmoil there.
The Brazilian stock market has been down more than 40% since October.
"We take a long-term view of Latin American markets, and we have a positive view of Brazil," Mr. Bailey said. "We see it as a good market, and our customers see it as a good market."
If the deal does go through, NationsBank would acquire 51% of Sao Paulo- based Liberal, a bank with important underwriting and asset management operations.
Liberal has also been active in the privatization of government-owned Brazilian utilities, an area in which NationsBank is keen to become involved on behalf of its U.S. corporate customers.
Mr. Bailey estimated that 300 of NationsBank's corporate clients are now looking at expanding their operations in Brazil.
"This acquisition will provide us with a foothold in a growing market and give us an opportunity to serve our customers with their investment banking needs," he said.
However, analysts were mixed on the idea of a NationsBank acquisition in Brazil.
Henry C. Dickson, a banking analyst with Smith Barney, is a supporter of the idea. "It would be nice to think you can do everything from Charlotte, but the reality is you can't," he said. "Any bank that wants to meet its corporate customers' needs has to consider what kind of network it wants to have in place, and NationsBank has obviously decided this is appropriate."
Meanwhile, Richard Bove of Raymond James & Co. in St. Petersburg was against the possibility of a deal.
"Foreign activity is not NationsBank activity, and this would not be appropriate from my standpoint as an investor," Mr. Bove said.
NationsBank would "really stress investors," he said, if it made another acquisition after its recent deals to buy Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., and San Francisco-based Montgomery Securities Inc.
"To do it at a time when Brazil itself is stressed would be even more shocking."