Following on the heels of other rating agencies, New York-based Fitch Investors Service is setting up a ratings group to evaluate countries and governments worldwide.

Peter Jordan, managing director for international operations at Fitch, said increasing demand for international ratings spurred the move. "It was time to establish a full-time group ... to articulate Fitch's views on specific countries where we are rating structured or unsecured corporate financings."

Banks and other financial services companies often rely on such ratings when deciding whether to lend to or underwrite the debt of a particular country's government or companies operating from that country.

Fitch has already assigned an A-minus rating for China and a BBB-plus rating for Chile. Up to 20 ratings on European, Asian, and Latin American countries will be issued by yearend, the agency has announced.

The agency named Gabriel Torres, a Fitch director, to oversee the new sovereign ratings group. He will supervise Jorge Celio, an associate director, who joined Fitch two weeks ago from Lehman Brothers, where he was a sovereign analyst in the fixed-income research group. Rafael Bracero, an analyst covering emerging market banking, will also join the group.

Fitch is the latest rating agency to climb aboard the international bandwagon. Late last year, Standard & Poor's extended its ratings to banks in emerging markets.

Moody's Investors Service, London-based IBCA Ltd., and Thomson BankWatch, a company affiliated with American Banker, have all been steadily expanding their international ratings to keep pace with growing global investments and financial transactions.

Fitch opened its first overseas office in London in May 1995. In a related move, the agency announced last week that it has struck a series of alliances with other rating firms in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico.

Mr. Jordan said the linkups with local rating agencies "will result in more accurate ratings and helpful research."

Discussions are being held on arranging similar alliances with other agencies in Latin America and Asia, Fitch added.

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