Recent dramatic moves by global players such as HSBC Holdings PLC, Banco Santander, and Banco Bilbao Vizcaya have given foreign banks control over 20% of the Latin American banking system. In some countries, such as Peru and Venezuela, they control more than 40%.

By and large, U.S. banking companies have refrained from joining in the buying spree, although institutions like Citicorp and BankBoston Corp. have made selective purchases. Have U.S. companies missed the boat? Not necessarily. The situation in Latin America is more complex than it appears.

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