Even as it makes cooperative overtures toward banks, American Express Co. is forging ahead in its bid to take a share of the Latin American card market away from them.

American Express announced an agreement last week to launch the Excel American Express card in Brazil. Issued by Banco Excel Economico, a year- old bank that ranks 17th in the country in assets, the card allows customers to do what they do with bank credit cards-revolve unpaid balances.

Rates and fees have not been disclosed.

And last month, the New York-based charge card company said it would offer a revolving credit card in Mexico, where it also issues standard, gold, platinum, and corporate cards.

Industry observers said American Express has been buoyed by the improved economies in the region and by the absence of restrictive MasterCard and Visa rules like those in the United States that prevent their member banks from marketing American Express cards.

With stronger economic growth, more international investment capital is likely to pour into Latin American countries, said Robert K. Hammer, chairman and chief executive officer of R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, Thousand Oaks, Calif.

"It is not unexpected that card companies would tend to direct additional investments there as well," said Mr. Hammer, who specializes in card portfolio deals and spends much of his time in developing parts of the world.

High inflation in countries like Brazil has boosted the popularity of credit cards because they allow consumers to spread the cost of purchases over time, said David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report, Oxnard, Calif.

But in years past economic instability meant that promoting credit cards was not necessarily in the best interest of issuers, Mr. Robertson said. Now inflation-which at times was characterized as hyperinflation-is much more under control throughout the region. And American Express is trying to improve its market penetration and reverse a slight drop last year in market share.

At yearend 1996, American Express held a 14% market share in Latin America, as measured by card sales at merchant locations, said The Nilson Report. This was a one-point drop from yearend 1995.

Visa commanded a 45% share, up 2 percentage points. MasterCard held steady at 35% and Diners Club slid from 7% to 6%.

The travel and entertainment brands, American Express and Citicorp's Diners Club, accounted for 6.4% of the 59.7 million credit cards issued in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Visa and MasterCard had the remaining 93.6%.

Although neither Visa nor MasterCard has instituted rules preventing their Latin American member banks from issuing nonbank products, American Express filed preemptive complaints last year with antitrust authorities in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, prompting official inquiries into the legality of any such action by Visa.

Both Visa and MasterCard were named in complaints filed in Chile and Argentina.

"They filed those complaints so that they could get some publicity with regulators prior to Visa being able to offer its position," said Mr. Robertson.

Since then the complaints have been dismissed in Chile and Argentina because there was nothing concrete in the allegations, according to Malvina Longoria, a Miami-based vice president and regional counsel for MasterCard International.

The newest addition to the American Express family, Banco Excel Economico, issues MasterCards and-coincident with the American Express announcement-announced plans to issue Visa cards. Two other Brazilian financial institutions have also signed on with American Express.

Last year Banco de Credito National, Brazil's sixth-largest bank, began issuing American Express charge and gold cards.

And earlier this year Sony Brazil agreed to market a Sony Card Entertainment American Express card. The card will be issued by Sony Card Admistradora, a partnership of Sony Brazil and Sony Finance International in Japan, later this year.

James M. Cracchiolo, president of Global Network Services for American Express, said, "We have a number of different partnership arrangements depending on the market and the type of opportunity that would be appropriate for American Express."

Despite the high-profile partners signed by American Express in Brazil, South America's most populous country, the company's competitors are unimpressed with its progress.

"American Express has been singularly unsuccessful in Brazil," said James F. Partridge, president of Visa's Latin America region, who pointed to American Express' track record with the Banco de Credito National program.

"As of a month ago they had 15,000 American Express cards in a nation of 140 million," he said.

Mr. Partridge, who is based in Miami, said Banco Credito National has since also joined Visa because it realized it would issue relatively few American Express cards.

He declined to reveal how many Visa cards the bank had issued.

For its revolving credit card in Mexico, American Express has chosen not to align itself with bank partners.

The card in Mexico is free to American Express cardmembers. For new customers, the card costs 150 pesos a year, or about $18.75. American Express said the annual percentage rate on loans is in the low 30s, a few points below the Mexican market average.

The fact that American Express is not partnering with a bank in Mexico could indicate a change in its official marketing stance, said Mr. Partridge.

"Either they have not been successful in attracting banks in Mexico to issue their cards, or now they are doing what they set out to do originally, which is to compete with banks," said Mr. Partridge.

"We haven't surveyed any of our member banks to find out how many of them would be interested, but we have not had our members clamoring for nonbank products to date," said Ms. Longoria of MasterCard.

But American Express spokeswoman Elizabeth Coleman denied that Mexican banks had spurned the company.

"That is ridiculous," she said. "We have just begun our efforts in the region. We initially focused on Brazil, but we will be expanding our relationships in Latin America."

Industry watchers said competition is good for the card industry and the opportunities in Latin America are immense.

"The fact that Visa and MasterCard have a nice penetration in Latin America wouldn't dissuade me if I were in (American Express chairman) Harvey Golub's shoes," said Mr. Hammer.

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