WASHINGTON While many of their brethren have been preoccupied with credit quality, bankruptcy reform, merchant banking, or other hot domestic issues, a growing number of financial services industry officials are turning their attention overseas.
The World Trade Organization, or WTO, is scheduled to meet in Doha, Qatar, in November, and bankers, brokers, and insurance agents alike are lobbying lawmakers and trade negotiators to press for the liberalization of global financial services.
Topping the list of priorities is equal treatment overseas for U.S. companies, more transparency in regulations and licensing, and the elimination of laws in some countries that prohibit foreign investors from owning a majority, or all, of a business.
As world leaders in providing innovative products and services, U.S. financial services firms are essential to the international competitiveness of the U.S. economy, Steve Judge, the top lobbyist for the Securities Industry Association, told a House subcommittee recently. Access to foreign markets is more important than ever as our customer base continues to invest and establish operations in foreign markets.
Barbara Levering, a spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association, or AIA, which represents property and casualty insurers, called the United States a mature market for insurers, and she said the industry must look beyond U.S. borders for customers and profits.
U.S. jobs in the insurance industry are largely maintained by overseas profits, Ms. Levering said. One major insurer makes 25% of its profits abroad enough to sustain its entire American work force, she said.
Among the countries with high barriers are Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brazil, according to the Coalition of Service Industries, a group of U.S. companies, including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and American International Group, that is pushing for global reform. The Bankers Association for Finance and Trade credits negotiators with making headway in Europe, Japan, Mexico, and Korea.
In brokering the 1997 General Agreement on Trade in Services, the WTO addressed financial services directly for the first time. Though acknowledging the progress made then, many want to go further.
The 1997 agreement was a good first step toward reducing or eliminating many of the most egregious barriers that firms and their clients face, Mr. Judge told the House Financial Services subcommittee on international monetary policy and trade on June 26, during its first hearing on the issue.
SIAs objectives for the upcoming round include convincing countries to turn voluntary liberalization into binding commitments and to make strong commitments to improved regulatory transparency, he said.
Brad Smith, managing director of international affairs at the American Council of Life Insurers, said there are still too many unknowns preventing U.S. companies from successfully setting up shop in some countries.
The ground rules for getting started, such as licensing requirements, are too fluid, Mr. Smith said, and once a company is established, the rules and regulations by which it must abide are not always spelled out clearly. In addition foreign businesses are sometimes charged higher fees or otherwise treated differently by local governments, he said.
Beyond transparency issues, bankers say the weakness of financial and government institutions overseas is the biggest barrier to doing business abroad.
Thomas L. Farmer, general counsel to the Bankers Association for Finance and Trade, told the House subcommittee that the biggest barrier to expanded U.S. bank operations abroad are weak local banking systems, poor regulatory regimes generally characterized by insufficient transparency, inadequate laws regarding bankruptcy and corporate governance and other weaknesses of the local legal system, and, very importantly, underdeveloped accounting practices.
The industry is pushing the issue in advance of the WTO meeting but also in light of the slowing U.S. economy and the nations huge trade deficit.
U.S. financial services exports last year rose 30% from a year earlier, to $17.8 billion, according to Peter OConnor, president of ACE INA, a property and casualty insurer.
And unlike many traditional exporters, financial services companies are making healthy profits on overseas trade. Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, estimated the industrys net export surplus last year at $8.8 billion.
Mr. Farmer said the strength and efficiency of U.S. financial firms has assisted the U.S. balance of payments by providing a very substantial surplus on current trade account.
Before Novembers WTO meeting, the industry is hoping Congress will approve measures to further its international trade agenda.
AIA officials, and others, have predicted that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., will schedule a vote this month on trade promotion authority, formerly known as fast-track authority. It remains unclear, however, whether enough lawmakers will vote to give President Bush the ability to negotiate some trade agreements without congressional approval something denied to President Clinton.
Votes may also be held this month on a bilateral agreement with Vietnam and on maintaining normal trade relations with China.
These votes, coupled with negotiations to finalize the terms of Chinas accession to the WTO, and the beginning of new trade-in-insurance negotiations with Japan this month, offer U.S. insurers some major opportunities for expansion, said John Savercool, the AIAs vice president of federal affairs.