For most people, mention of an import-export business brings to mind tangible stuff, like wicker baskets, cars, maybe loads of bananas.
But don't overlook mutual funds.
Increasingly, U.S. asset managers are exporting their know-how to foreign clients. And they are selling more international mutual funds to U.S. customers.
For its third annual Global Funds edition, American Banker explored the prospects for this invisible but important import-export business. And we looked at the ways that companies are cashing in on it.
Most of the excitement has arisen around global pension reform. It may sound like a dry subject, but it sets asset management executives' hearts to pounding.
After all, it is not often that the nations of the world are looking for someone to invest trillions of dollars with.
That is oversimplifying a bit, of course. The pension revolution will take years to unfold once it really gets rolling.
But a revolution is indeed coming, as countries around the world move to privatize their underfunded retirement systems along the U.S. model.
In the words of Donald Putnam, an investment banker specializing in asset management companies, "An American solution has become the global answer."
How to get in position to sell that solution is up for debate, however- as we found in discussions with Charles Brady, Amvescap's chief, and John Brennan, his counterpart at Vanguard Group.
While Amvescap has launched an all-out campaign to manage the world's money, Vanguard is content to start as a niche player.
Another question for fund companies is how to conquer cultural resistance to investing. A visit to Poland, one of the virgin frontiers of investing, showed that many people there do not have bank accounts, let alone mutual funds.
And as they begin to entrust part of their pension money to private companies, Poles are turning first to insurers, in part because they are better known and more trusted than mutual fund companies.
As mutual fund marketplaces evolve, fund companies are searching for the best way to distribute their wares. Alliance Capital has distinguished itself in Japan by choosing not to enter a joint venture for distribution.
The company must be doing something right. It is the second-largest foreign manager of Japanese mutual funds.
No sure bets are available in the global asset management game. That fact is underlined by what investment professionals who focus on Europe told us.
Last year's giddiness about the prospect of a common currency has turned into something approaching sober realism, they report.
Economic growth in the region has been slower than predicted, and stock performance may not get the quick lift that the euro promised.
That kind of news helps explain why investors on the home front are not rushing into international funds. Yes, Americans have more of their assets in funds that invest in foreign markets.
But they are still not investing as much there as their financial advisers would like.
Particularly wary of international funds are retirees, who are loath to risk their nest eggs in a category that has been a loser over the last five years.
Investors may change their tune if a nascent revival in foreign small- and mid-cap companies and in emerging markets takes hold. Managers who run the best-performing international funds say they are finding more and more good buys in unlikely places like Russia and Japan.
But the U.S. bull market, still roaring after all these years, remains the first choice for U.S. investors. And foreign investors are increasingly clamoring for a piece of the action.
That is music to the ears of companies that sell offshore mutual funds.
Demand for those funds from Latin American investors is making for hot and heavy competition in Miami, which has long been a private banking hub for Latin America.
Those investors, from countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, are becoming more sophisticated about investing, thanks to the flood of information available through the media.
Because of the information proliferation, the topic of mutual funds seems sure to pop up at more and more dinner tables around the world.
As one private banking executive observed: "CNN is everywhere."