Stocks of major banks active in Latin America were rocked Thursday as market unrest in Brazil and Ar-gentina sent a shiver through investors who recalled how the region's problems caused havoc for banks a decade ago.
Brazilian stocks have lost 15% of their value in two days on reports that banks there face a liquidity crunch and that the government spent nearly 10% of its foreign reserves defending its currency. Brazilian officials denied that banks are in trouble but acknowledged spending reserves.
In New York, nervous investors took out their anxieties on U.S. bank stocks. The S&P bank index slumped 3.15%, while the S&P 500 fell 1.69% in another volatile day of trading.
Events in Argentina have also raised concerns. Its market fell 8.1% Thursday and has fallen 26% in the past week. Deutsche Morgan Grenfell downgraded three Argentine banks-Banco de Galicia y Buenos Aires, Bansud SA, and Banco Frances del Rio Plata-to "sell."
Prices of Latin American government bonds also got - in the word of one analyst - "clobbered."
The sudden negative turn of events in Brazil and Argentina strikingly resembles the crises that have hit Southeast Asia in recent months, analysts say, and illustrate how far-flung parts of the world have become economically linked.
"It's reasonable to say there are big problems in Latin America now," said Robert A. Brusca, chief economist at Nikko Securities, New York, who added that "the problems in the Pacific Rim didn't used to be contagious."
At the same time, Wall Street analysts emphasized that the exposure of U.S. banks in Latin America is far different now than in the 1980s.
Banks like Citicorp and Chase Manhattan Corp. are doing less direct lending to Latin American governments and companies. Instead, they act as intermediaries between Latin American companies selling their securities to U.S. investors, typically insurance companies.
While these securities can be speculative-backed by unbooked revenues from as-yet-unmade steel in Argentina, for example-they do shift much of the region's riskiness from banks to the buyers of the securities.
Still, several big U.S. banks remain major players in Latin America, and many of these have been trying to expand their business in the region's burgeoning capital markets and consumer banking franchises.
Shares of BankBoston Corp., which reported that 18% of its 1996 income came from its long-standing Latin American business, fell $4.125, to $79.6875.
Last month the Boston bank agreed to acquire Deutsche Bank's retail banking business in Argentina. BankBoston's chief executive, Charles Gifford, told investors he envisioned his company becoming "the Fidelity of Brazil."
Citicorp, whose "cross-border exposure" in Brazil totals $5.3 billion - more than any other banking company's, according to the Federal Reserve - saw its shares fall $4.3125, to $125.0625. Citicorp reported that 19% of its 1996 income came from Latin America.
Chase Manhattan, which reported 22% of its earnings from Latin American and Caribbean operations in 1996, saw its stock fall $4.3125, to $115.9375.
J.P. Morgan & Co., which derived 9% of its "client-related" 1996 revenues from Latin America, fell $3.875, to $110.375. Its sizable trading revenues are not reported by region.
And Bankers Trust New York Corp., which reported 13% of its revenue from Latin American operations in 1996, fell $3.8125, to $118.375.
Still, the news wasn't all bad for U.S. banks regarding Latin America. Shares of Mellon Bank Corp. fell only 81.25 cents, to $50.5615, after it was announced the Pittsburgh company had gotten permission to buy a 40% stake in Banco Brascan of Brazil.
Some analysts said the declines of these big banks doesn't reflect investor concern about international economics so much as worries that stock prices have simply risen too high.
"The market is looking for a bottom and hasn't found it yet," said Lawrence W. Cohn, research director at Ryan, Beck & Co., Livingston, N.J.
Mr. Brusca suggested that recent international volatility in stocks may have taught something to investors and executives: Spreading risk across the globe may not be all it appears.
"One of the lessons of the events in Asia, and now in Latin America, is that you don't get as much diversification as you thought," he said. "When one country goes down, so does another."