FleetBoston Financial Corp. and Citigroup Inc. are pressing forward with Latin American consumer banking.

FleetBoston announced that it plans to double its assets in Brazil, to $20 billion, while Citigroup was reported to be trying to buy a Chilean consumer finance company.

FleetBoston said it hopes to have 300,000 Brazilian consumers as customers in two years, Henrique de Campos Meirelles, president of its global bank, told news agencies in Sao Paulo on Thursday. It now has about 140,000.

The company plans spend $40 million to open 24 retail investment offices across Brazil, and set up a brokerage firm in Sao Paulo in the coming months, he said.

He also suggested that the bank might broaden its retail activities even further by offering customers a way to buy cars and airline tickets and make hotel reservations..

"Banks are diversifying the kinds of services they offer, and FleetBoston is considering offering comparable services to its customers," Mr. Meirelles said.

In the last two years FleetBoston has invested some $250 million in building a headquarters in Sao Paulo and doubled the number of its Brazilian branches, to 64. In a parallel move the $186 billion-asset banking company is investing heavily in Mexico, where it plans to increase assets from around $1 billion, to $5 billion or $6 billion over the next few years.

Meanwhile newspapers in Chile said Citigroup has offered $120 million to $140 million to buy Conosur SA, the nation's biggest consumer finance company.

The purchase would be Citi's second of a Chilean consumer finance company. Citi bought Corporacion Financiera Atlas SA, Chile's second-biggest such company, last year for $82.5 million. With the Conosur acquisition, Citi would have about 28% of the Chilean consumer finance market, according to analysts' estimates.

A Citigroup spokeswoman in New York declined to comment on the reports, which first appeared in the Chilean press and were subsequently carried by Bloomberg News.

In December, Citi announced plans to expand the international operations of both Primerica Financial Services Inc., its Atlanta financial planning subsidiary, and CitiFinancial Credit Co., its Baltimore consumer finance operation. Last year the company sold off its Canadian retail banking network and opted instead to develop retail credit operations through CitiFinancial.

Citi isn't the only U.S. banking company targeting the highly profitable consumer finance operations in Latin America.

Two years ago Wells Fargo & Co. acquired Finvercon, a small consumer finance company in Argentina, and it has been expanding commercial finance operations in Central America and across the Caribbean.

FleetBoston is also expanding its consumer finance operations in Brazil by focusing on automotive and appliance loans. Other companies, such as Associates First Capital Corp., General Electric Capital Corp., and General Motors Acceptance Corp. are also active in the region.

Analysts noted that consumer finance in Latin America has been given a strong push by the introduction a few years ago of consumer credit-scoring companies in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico. They add that given the small size of Latin America's middle class, banks that want to develop retail business need to target low-income as well as high-income consumers.

And since margins are extremely high - interest rates typically range from 25% to over 40% annually - consumer finance can be highly profitable despite the risks and inherent volatility in Latin American economies. Citigroup, for example, currently charges 36% interest on a 12-month car loan in Mexico and pays only 4.8% on a savings account.

"Risk-adjusted yields are so great, the business is worth doing even if there are a lot of defaults," said Andre Cappon, president of CBM Group, a New York-based international financial consulting firm. "It can be an excellent business if it's done right, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see more people getting in."

An economic recovery is gathering steam in Latin America after a severe recession in several countries last year.

"Latin America's economies are on the upswing," Mr. Cappon said. Consumer finance "is a naturally good business to get into since you have large populations buying consumer goods."

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