International bankers haven't forgotten how, in the 1980s, they would wake up in the morning wondering what new crisis hit overnight.
But today they look at their business through very different eyes. They awake to opportunities in places where there used to be only problems.
U.S. bankers are once again moving overseas, opening branches from Beijing to Bombay, from Johannesburg to Lima.
Behind the resurgence are lessons learned in the 1980s, when banks wrote off billions of dollars of loans to foreign countries.
The spigot is open again, but less dangerously. Loan maturities are shorter, and the dollar amounts smaller.
The banks also have shifted international emphasis away from lending and into activities such as syndications, underwritings, and advisory services. Therefore, far less capital is at risk than there was during the expansion heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s.
In that era, major banks "expanded internationally because they were unable to expand domestically," said Chase Manhattan Corp. chairman Walter Shipley, who spent much of his career on the international side.
"We have always been major players in international, but we're doing things very differently now," Mr. Shipley said, noting that Chase, the biggest U.S. bank, has cut back on cross-border lending in favor of such other activities as global custody, cash transfers, and syndications.
"International banking has significantly changed and isn't even comparable" to the way it was 15 years ago, said Darin Narayana, president and chief executive officer of Banc One International Corp., a newly created, Dallas-based unit of Banc One Corp. "It's become very much a payments and risk-management-driven business, versus a lending business."
Instead of providing standard, off-the-shelf products, Mr. Narayana pointed out, banks are increasingly being called on to structure international financing using a variety of alternatives, rather than just one formula. Instead of simple lending, banks are structuring complex multibillion dollar financings for large projects, securitizing trade- related receivables, advising on mergers and acquisitions, and helping underwrite and distribute debt and equity offerings.
Behind the change in outlook are several significant developments:
*Countries around the world have been deregulating at varying speeds, opening up markets that were virtually closed to the rest of the world until as recently as a few years ago. With economic freedom and growth comes demand for vastly expanded and more complex financing and banking services - and they are willing to pay more for it than a U.S. bank could make on the same transaction at home.
*International trade is gaining momentum and becoming a bigger contributor to U.S. company revenues. Exports have climbed from $57 billion in 1970 to $800 billion last year, while imports have grown from $56 billion to $906 billion. Companies of all sizes are increasingly demanding support services such as trade finance, foreign exchange, global cash management, and global payments.
*Capital flows have become truly global, whether among multinational corporations, investment managers, or entrepreneurs diversifying their investments. With their technological capabilities and grounding in the world's largest capital markets, U.S. banks are in a prime position to ride these monetary waves.
"It would be fair to say that we followed our clients offshore, and entered the global market in scale only fairly recently," acknowledged Ronald O'Kelley, chief financial officer at State Street Boston Corp., a leading asset manager and custodian.
"But we also think that a lot of our growth in the future is going to come from the foreign side of the business."
Given this multitude of opportunities, banks have reacted in different ways. J.P. Morgan & Co. and Bankers Trust New York Corp. have chosen to specialize in capital markets and investment banking, structuring and underwriting a complex range of financings in which their lending and commercial banking capabilities can give them leverage over the competition.
Others, like Chase Manhattan Corp. and BankAmerica Corp., are reasserting traditional strengths in corporate banking, building on their internationally recognized names to syndicate loans, expand trading, provide structured finance, foreign exchange and trade finance, not only to foreign clients but to other U.S. banks that don't have the same in-house abilities.
"We exited a number of markets, especially retail, which we couldn't sustain," said Federico Sacasa, group executive vice president for the international trade bank at Bank of America in San Francisco. "The focus shifted to the wholesale side."
Among BofA's areas of concentration are trade finance, payments, capital markets, project finance, and global equities.
Still others, like NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp., are dipping their toes into the domains of trade finance and correspondent banking, reluctant to go beyond anything other than what their customers are asking for.
Or, like State Street Boston Corp. and Bank of New York Co., they are focusing on a limited range of services such as American depositary receipts, global custody, and asset management.
Citicorp and Bank of Boston Corp., have gone against the conventional wisdom and shown it is possible to succeed at multinational consumer banking.
Whichever the focus, the pace of expansion has accelerated, especially in the emerging markets of Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe where economic growth is fastest.
Within the last year alone, CoreStates Bank has opened offices in Dubai; Bank of Boston in Bombay, Lima, and Madeira. First Chicago NBD Corp. has opened branches in Beijing and Singapore, Citicorp has started consumer banking operations in Poland.
Bank of America and J.P. Morgan have opened offices in South Africa, while Fifth Third Bancorp has opened offices in Brussels and in Hong Kong.
The list of openings is likely to get longer this year in Latin America, Russia, India, and even Africa. Meanwhile banks that remain reluctant to invest in bricks and mortar overseas, are still seeking to extend their global reach, mainly through strategic alliances.
Confronted with rapidly growing exports out of California, for example, Wells Fargo & Co. this year set up a joint trade bank with HSBC Holdings PLC that will leverage Wells' extensive U.S. network and HSBC's far- reaching Asian empire. Other regional banks have been equally quick to pursue similar low-cost strategic alliances. First Union Corp., another late comer to the international scene, has set up a joint venture with Indonesia's Lippo Group and with Hong Kong Chinese Bank Ltd. while First Chicago NBD Corp. has struck a similar arrangement with Standard Chartered PLC to provide expanded cross-border cash management services to clients in Southeast Asia.
Cross-border lending also is picking up. Since yearend 1991, lending by the 125 U.S. banks most active in the field has gone up 31%, to $377 billion. By far the fastest-growing portion has been lending to emerging markets, which has increased 53%, to $90 billion.
Analysts generally welcome U.S. banks' forays into global banking, noting that bankers appeared to have learned their lessons of the 1980s, and that the trend is very much in keeping with the globalization of overall commerce and finance.
However, some, like Brown Brothers Harriman analyst Raphael Soifer, still remain cautious. Even if the growing volume of business outside the United States makes it logical for banks to move overseas, Mr. Soifer wonders whether they will be adequately compensated.
"There are great opportunities out there, but there are also great risks, and my concern is that the risks are being mispriced," Mr. Soifer said.
"In the short run, that's not likely to be a problem so long as the world economy remains in good shape, but that obviously can't last forever."