The crisis in emerging markets is starting to cause layoffs at U.S. banks.
On Wednesday, BankBoston said it is closing branch offices in India, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan, resulting in the loss of about 100 jobs. The bank is also cutting 14 jobs in its emerging-market sales, trading, and research group, or around 25% of the unit's work force.
Analysts predicted other banks soon will follow suit-and possibly with much larger cuts. Bankers Trust Corp. and BankAmerica Corp. are among the banks said to be looking at scaling back international operations.
To be sure, emerging-market businesses are not the only parts of banks to experience layoffs. With a number of mergers closing and uncertainty mounting about the U.S. economy, broad cutbacks are under way at many institutions. But "percentage wise, it will be greatest in emerging markets," said Ron Mandle, a banking analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.
Bankers Trust is reportedly considering eliminating up to 1,500 jobs, or 8% of its staff, after announcing $350 million in third-quarter overseas trading losses. Bankers Trust officials were unavailable for comment.
Last month the company moved its Mexico City trading operation to New York, eliminating some 40 positions.
BankAmerica is also reviewing its operations and could make major changes this month after a fivefold drop in third-quarter net earnings, said a bank spokeswoman. The bank on Wednesday alerted analysts that it will start paring back overseas operations.
These reports follow a spate of bad news from other large financial institutions.
Merrill Lynch & Co., the largest securities firm in the United States, said earlier this week it will cut 3,400 jobs because of difficult worldwide market conditions.
In Europe the chairmen of Switzerland's UBS and Holland's ING Barings have recently resigned following losses on international markets.
Analysts said that BankBoston's announced cutbacks indicate a clear retreat by the bank to doing business in regions it knows best.
"They're refocusing trading to where it should have been all along as an adjunct to client relationships in their Latin American markets," said Nancy Bush, a banking analyst with Ryan, Beck & Co.
Henrique de Campos Meirelles, BankBoston's president, suggested as much in a statement. He said the changes will permit the bank to focus trading on Latin America and Asia, and "substantially reduce the level of risk and capital associated with the emerging-markets trading business."
He added that the bank had no intention of giving up its trading and capital market activities in emerging markets but will be "concentrating in areas where we have local presence, competitive advantages, and the greatest opportunities for long-term growth."
As part of the changes, Ricardo Gallo, managing director of investment banking in Brazil, will take over the emerging-market operations from Ignacio Sosa. Mr. Gallo will report to Geraldo Carbone, co- head of global banking with Manuel Sacerdote, Argentina country head.
Mr. Sosa, together with David Lavi, co-head of emerging-market sales and trading, have been reassigned to set up a global high-yield investment fund for institutional as well as private investors. In a telephone interview Wednesday, Mr. Sosa said that planning for the fund has not yet been completed, but BankBoston might open the fund to outside investors.
BankBoston plans to retain its Asian headquarters in Singapore, branches in Hong Kong and South Korea, and representative offices in Beijing, Shanghai, and Jakarta. Anthony Loh, who joined the bank earlier this year, remains head of Asian operations.
BankBoston executives countered suggestions the Asian cutbacks were related to problems abroad and said they were part of a long-term plan developed earlier this year.
Geraldo Carbone, co-head of global banking, added that Asian offices were closed in countries where BankBoston does not have a "critical mass" of customers to run a profitable operation.
"It's impossible for all financial institutions to offer everything to everybody," Mr. Carbone noted.
"So we want to focus on certain areas like trade finance, corporate finance, and structured finance in specific countries with specific customers."
Asian trade finance-related services for BankBoston's importers in the United States will continue to be handled from Hong Kong and South Korea through branches and in Taiwan through an arrangement with Union Bank of California's Taipei branch, the bank added.
However, analysts threw cold water on BankBoston statements that it remains committed to expanding in Asia following a deepening recession in that part of the world.
"They will be in Asia on an opportunistic basis, but I don't think Asia is going to be their emphasis going forward, said Ms. Bush.
"It's more a retreat from being a money-center-like global bank to becoming a hemispheric bank."
Mr. Carbone disclosed BankBoston's plans to continue expanding asset management in Latin America, possibly through acquisitions. The bank is the biggest mutual fund company in Argentina with between $2 billion and $3 billion in funds under management and the fifth-biggest in Brazil, with $6 billion in funds.
Executive recruiters said the mood on Wall Street in recent days has grown increasingly gloomy. Still, while observers compared the scenario to getting splashed with a bucket of cold water, no one is saying the mood is desperate. "Business is down, but no one has ventured to say it will be over," said Andrea de Chalnoky, a senior partner at Spencer Stuart Associates.
The market has survived job cuts before-with the Asian crisis, the Mexican peso crisis, and the 1987 crash. "It's one of those Darwinian things," said Steve Hall, a consultant at Pearl Meyer & Partners. "It's a time where you refresh the organization."
Observers said it is unlikely banks will exit emerging markets completely. "They are not getting rid of the superstars," Mr. Hall said. "Some are still looking to hire the dream team."
And companies are using the downturn to focus the business on specific niches, consultants said. "Many of these companies are going back and rearticulating their core strategies," Ms. Chalnoky said.