Overcoming concerns that financial turmoil in Asia would depress earnings in Latin America, BankBoston Corp. has reported a 60% rise in net income, to $54 million, in Brazil during the first half.
Alex Zornig, vice president for finance at BankBoston in Sao Paulo, attributed the strong improvement to an increase in local lending, 27,000 new retail customers, a rise in assets under management, and a sharp increase in Brazilian interest spreads.
"All the factors have worked in our favor," Mr. Zornig said.
The improvement in earnings, which are for Brazilian licensed units of the company and exclude Brazil-related earnings booked outside the country, dispelled worries investors have had that BankBoston might suffer from its large exposure to overseas markets.
"BankBoston has been in Argentina since 1917 and in Brazil since 1947," said Nancy Bush, a banking analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co. "With each bout of turbulence, those economies become more like our own, and BankBoston has proved it is able to make money from the volatility." In the second quarter BankBoston set aside $66 million in provisions to cover fraud involving an Argentine borrower in its private banking unit. It also suffered $4 million in losses on trading and $10 million in losses on loans to Indonesia. Nevertheless, international earnings have remained strong.
Earnings from Latin America account for roughly 25% of the bank's total net income for the first half, and earnings from Brazil represent nearly 12% of the total. BankBoston has a combined $9.2 billion in onshore and offshore assets in Brazil and $8 billion in total assets in Argentina.
The bank has not disclosed earnings for the first half in Argentina, its other major market in Latin America. Informed sources said BankBoston is expecting at least a 20% improvement in earnings in Brazil for the year and a 15% to 20% increase in Argentina.
BankBoston has one of the largest international networks among U.S. banks and is working to expand in Latin America and Asia.
The bank is spending more than $80 million to expand in Argentina and Brazil. By yearend BankBoston will have about 140 branches in Argentina and 64 in Brazil, where 18 branches are being opened.
Mr. Zornig did not rule out BankBoston's making a purchase in Brazil, but he said it would "rather build than buy."
Over the last year BankBoston has expanded staff in Brazil to 3,300 from 2,500; it plans to add another 100 employees.
On the retail side the bank hopes to double its share of the two million customers earning more than $43,000 a year to 15%, from 7%, and to have 400,000 credit cards outstanding by yearend, up from 322,000 currently and 22,000 four years ago.
The bank is building a consumer finance business in Brazil this year and has around $120 million of auto loans outstanding.
Consumer banking has proved particularly profitable because of a recent steep rise in interest rates and margins in Brazil stemming from financial volatility. Interest on credit cards, for example, is now 11% a month, compounded annually.
On the corporate banking side, Mr. Zornig said, the bank is working closely with Robertson Stephens, the San Francisco brokerage it bought this year, to build up equity-related activities.
He said the bank expects a growth spurt in assets under management, which rose to $5.1 billion from $3.9 billion.