Amid the country's economic turmoil, the Mexican government has issued rules that specify how credit bureaus should collect and disseminate consumer credit information.

Mexican banks, retailers, and foreign financial organizations with operations in Mexico had been waiting for the policy, which was issued in February. The nation's credit reporting system has been called woefully inadequate; now those companies can get on with updating it, probably with help from the most advanced U.S. companies in credit data bases.

The regulations, published by the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit, opened the starting gates for several credit-reporting operations that are now jockeying for position in one of the world's most attractive emerging markets.

Before the rules were submitted, only one credit bureau, Datum, owned by the largest Mexican banks, was allowed to operate.

The rules essentially allow competing bureaus to apply to the Ministry of Finance for operating licenses.

Over the past 18 months or so, the major bureaus in the United States - TRW Information Systems and Services, Equifax Inc., and Trans Union Corp. - have been wooing the Mexican credit market.

The credit-reporting unit of TRW Inc. in Orange, Calif., formed a venture, Datacredit, with a Mexican investor in January 1994. Since then, Datacredit has been soliciting customer data from credit grantors so the company could begin building a file of credit reports.

Meanwhile, Trans Union and Equifax have been vying for a coveted partnership with the largest banks and a group of smaller institutions in Mexico.

Those banks, represented by the Mexican Bankers Association, want to reform Datum using the technical expertise of an American partner.

It appears that Trans Union is favored by the association, but Equifax said that it is still in the running. Moreover, even if the association selects Trans Union as its partner, John T. Rougeou, senior vice president of Equifax's credit-reporting services, pointed out that the final decision approving the establishment of a new credit bureau, according to the rules, is in the hands of the government.

Specifically, Mexico's central bank, the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit, and the national banking, securities, insurance, and finance commissions, will evaluate applications.

"We don't know who has the deal and who doesn't," said Mr. Rougeou, but regardless of what happens with the association, "we are going to be in the credit-reporting business in Mexico." Equifax established an office in Mexico City last September.

For its part, Chicago-based Trans Union would not comment on the progress of its negotiations with the Mexican banks.

But bankers from the largest bank in Mexico, Banamex, say they are on the verge of finalizing their plans with Trans Union.

They said that Trans Union will own 30% of the new credit bureau and the association as a whole will own 70%, with each of the three largest hanks holding a 20% share.

The Mexican banks are so sure that their business plan will be approved that are expecting to begin operations in August.

So far only TRW's venture, Datacredit, has submitted an application to the Ministry of Finance.

Assuming that it is approved, TRW said that it wants to open Datacredit in July.

The Association of Mexican Banks, however, has yet to apply, because it must address the government's concerns regarding antitrust issues.

"The deal with Trans Union has not gone through, because we are waiting for the competition committee, which addresses antitrust issues, to come to an agreement with the Ministry of Finance," said Luis Ramirez, Banamex's vice president of research and development of bank cards.

A spokeswoman for the association said that a committee of bankers and government officials is discussing how to resolve the antitrust implications that result when a large part of the banking industry forms one credit bureau. One of the issues under examination involves how ownership of the credit bureau will be divided.

Equifax, it appears, is waiting to see whether Trans Union and the association receive the government's blessing. In the interim, the Atlanta- based bureau is focusing on interpreting the government rules.

Most people who have looked at the rules agree that they are ambiguous and will require clarification.

Three major issues were singled out by executives from TRW and Equifax as being particularly relevant to their interests.

Ned Manashil, vice president TRW Information Systems and Services' international business, was heartened to find a clause in the rules regarding lenders sharing credit information about their customers with more than one credit bureau.

"The most important, specific provision says that credit- reporting companies cannot preclude the sharing of information with other credit- reporting companies," he said.

Although he could never confirm it, Mr. Manashil believes that Datum prohibited its customers from supplying data to a competing credit bureau.

"We were told by credit grantors that they couldn't give us data if they were supplying it to Datum," said Mr. Manashil.

The rules stipulate that credit bureaus are not allowed to prohibit their customers from providing information to or using the data of another credit bureau.

The rules also provide for the sharing of negative credit information. For example, if one company requests the negative data files, which could include delinquent payments and loan defaults, of another company, the latter is obligated to furnish it.

But Mr. Rougeou pointed out that the rule is not specific.

"It does not define, for instance, the degree of delinquency," he said. And the level of delinquency would generally define a negative file.

The various credit bureaus, however, will distinguish their services based on their ability to collect positive credit information, such as a consumer's record of timely payments on an installment loan.

Traditionally, Mexican creditors reported only negative information about their customers. This approach flagged bad credit risks, but made it difficult for lenders to identify good potential customers.

In fact, Datum only recently began collecting positive information and the majority of its files are based on a customer's record of paying credit card bills.

The other significant rule addresses the practice of prescreening applicants.

Mexican bankers have long feared that foreign financial companies will essentially steal their customers, because they have more sophisticated modeling and targeting tools.

And so, the Ministry of Finance responded to these fears by saying that companies can access credit files only if they have a signed application from the customer.

"If we allow prescreening, these companies will get all of our customers that we paid a lot of money to get," said Juan Pina, executive vice president of research and development at Banamex. "All we want is a fair competition."

The rules don't specifically prohibit prescreening, but since a creditor must submit a customer's signed application to access a credit bureau file, it would be very difficult for lenders to use the credit bureau system in Mexico the way it is used in the United States.

Generally, American lenders comb credit bureau files to identify customers with strong credit histories, and then they send out solicitations with pre-approved credit to those customers.

The Mexican rules give credit grantors who have had Mexican customers for a number of years a distinct advantage over creditors who do not have customer relationships. The new entrants will be venturing into the market blindly.

In a separate move, Equifax announced a joint venture with the WEFA Group of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., that addresses this problem. (See related story on page 14).

As the competition among credit bureaus intensifies, some observers point out that consumer demand for credit may be dampened until the Mexican economy and inflation stabilizes.

"Consumers who are good credit risks now may become bad risks quickly," observed Mr. Ramirez.

There have been reports that local newspapers are carrying ads discouraging people from using their credit cards. During the economic crisis in Mexico, credit card interest rates have been hovering around 70%.

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