The private banking officers who do business in Miami's sleek glass towers joke that they like to personally escort clients up from the lobby-just to make sure they don't get off on the wrong floor.

With so many banks and brokerage houses packed into those towers, they worry that wealthy Latin American clients will wander into a rival's office and never be heard from again.

"The competition is fierce in Miami," said Steve Phillips, manager of international banking at Union Planters Corp., a Memphis-based banking company with a large presence in Florida.

It is getting fiercer yet, because bankers like Mr. Phillips have a hot new product to compete over: offshore mutual funds.

While Latin Americans have long turned to the banks along Miami's financial strip for trade finance and for private investment accounts, they are now looking to them as doorways into the booming U.S. fund market.

To do so, they are investing in offshore funds. Often clones of U.S. funds, offshore funds are created specifically for non-U.S. investors and registered in tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg.

Mutual fund companies, eager to tap the demand from Chileans, Argentinians, Brazilians, and other Latin American investors, are racing to create offshore funds and dispatch salespeople to Miami to find distribution partners.

"The gathering of assets from the international community has been explosive," said Bernardo Lozano, regional vice president for MFS International, which was one of the first fund companies to plant its flag in Miami, about five years ago.

The unit of Massachusetts Financial Services, a Boston fund company, has more than $3.5 billion in its offshore fund family. It saw its sales to Latin American clients rise 45% last year.

Among the newcomers to Miami that are turning heads is Janus, which created an offshore fund family last year and has already garnered $500 million of assets under management, almost half of that from Latin America.

"Miami has really become the private banking center for the Americas," said Randolph Clark, Latin America regional director for the Denver-based fund company. "And the mutual fund business has steadily increased over the last five years."

The demand has also spurred a new or increased presence in Miami by companies like Alliance Capital, Putnam Investments, Franklin-Templeton Group, and Scudder Kemper Investments, which use banks and brokers to distribute their funds.

"We've seen increased activity on behalf of the providers-the MFSs, the Fidelitys, the Putnams," said the president of one bank's international arm in Miami. "They're following the demand from the market."

Offshore fund sales at the bank, a niche player in the business, have doubled over the past three years, said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Among the factors fueling Latin Americans' demand for offshore funds is the region's recovery from the debt crisis of the early 1980s.

That has created a middle class with money to invest. At the same time, the financial media have broadcast the success of U.S. mutual funds and helped those investors climb the sophistication curve.

"Cable television has been phenomenal as an educational vehicle for private banking clients," said Mr. Phillips, the Union Planters executive. "CNN is everywhere."

Without offshore funds, many Latin American investors could not take advantage of the U.S. bull market, because many countries mandate that domestically based funds invest mostly in stocks of that country.

Having money stashed away overseas is also a way to protect it against political turmoil at home-not to mention shielding it from local taxes.

The surge in offshore mutual fund demand from Latin America reflects a global trend. By June of last year, assets under management in offshore funds had risen to $108.9 billion, from $6.8 billion in 1990 and $644 million in 1984, according to Lipper Inc.

Miami has emerged as a private banking hub for Latin America because of its central location. The international business has helped make Spanish virtually as common as English in the city-and Portuguese is growing fast as a third language.

The traffic in and out of Miami International Airport is fast and furious: Latin American clients come to the city to do their banking and investing and private banking officers travel to Latin America to meet clients, often at correspondent banks.

Mutual fund wholesalers like Mr. Clark of Janus spend their time darting around Latin America to provide support and sales training to the bankers and brokers and then return to the United States to knock on banks' and brokers' doors to try to set up more wholesaling agreements.

"I'm sure American Airlines is very happy," said Steve Marks, managing director of international sales with Eaton Vance Distributors, a Boston fund company that is a niche player in the market.

A key to increased mutual fund sales is the fact that Latin American correspondent banks have embraced the concept of fee-based investment products, fund executives say.

"Latin America perceived mutual funds as threats to their deposits," Mr. Clark said. "Only recently have they begun to recognize them as a source of income."

It's not just Latin American and American banks that are hip to the market. More and more European institutions have been setting up shop here.

In fact, there are some 60 foreign bank offices alone in Miami.

But for all that, the market is not saturated quite yet, said Mr. Phillips.

"It's a boom," he said. "We literally can't keep enough marketing material on hand to send to people."

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