BankBoston Corp. does not plan to slow its expansion in Latin America despite the current shaky outlook for financial markets in the region, says the bank's president.
"Instability is a way of life in Latin America, and we have weathered crises much worse than this one," said Henrique de Campos Meirelles, BankBoston's president and chief operating officer.
In fact, he said, "we are sticking to our forecasts for an improvement in results in 1997 as well as 1998."
Mr. Meirelles said that BankBoston is finalizing plans to nearly double its branches in Brazil, to 64 from 34. The bank is also considering additional investments in Argentina, where it recently bought Deutsche Bank's retail and middle-market network.
BankBoston is the second-largest U.S. bank in Latin America, so its actions there influence other banks.
"This kind of crisis creates a dramatic increase in transactions and in our corporate customer base and is extremely important for a bank like ours," Mr. Meirelles said. "History has taught us before that in these kinds of situations, our overall level of profitability improves."
BankBoston has remained relatively unaffected by the financial crisis in Asia, where it has an only limited presence. Although the bank does have plans to expand in Asia, Mr. Meirelles said those initiatives are far less ambitious than for Latin America and are linked to building up private banking and investor-related services as well as activities such as trade finance.
Last year, BankBoston earned $145 million in Latin America, or 22% of total net income. At yearend, the bank had slightly over $13 billion of assets in Latin America. Citicorp had $28 billion.
Mr. Meirelles' remarks came amid sharp increases in volatility in Latin financial markets, especially in Brazil, where the stock market plunged more than 30% over the last few weeks after a drop in Asian markets.
Downward pressure on Brazil's currency, the real, has forced the Brazilian government to raise short-term interest rates to above 40%. As a result, analysts have expressed concerns that Brazilian corporations could have trouble paying back their loans. Any devaluation of the currency would also cut deeply into earnings at Brazilian banks, many of which have borrowed heavily in dollars on international capital markets.
"We could see earnings of Brazilian banks falling by between 30% and 70%," said Brian R. Pearl, vice president in equity research at J.P. Morgan & Co.
Mr. Pearl, however, added that despite a nearly 15% drop in the stock market value of Latin American banks last month, Morgan remains "positive regarding valuations in Latin America over the next several quarters," mainly because the bank believes Brazil will not devalue its currency.
Other sources also expressed confidence that the longer-term outlook for Latin America remains favorable.
Speaking at a conference on Latin American financial services last week, Ricardo Silvagni, managing partner for Latin America at Price Waterhouse, said his company "still sees the potential for substantial growth in financial services investment in the region."
"Looking beyond the headlines of recent days, we can say with certainty that the Latin American financial services market remains one of the most attractive in the world for investment."