The Bankers Association for Foreign Trade likes to work behind the scenes.

But the rapid internationalization of banking in recent years has catapulted this low-key organization, known by its acronym, BAFT, into a prominent place among bank policymakers. Monday, the organization will host U.S. and foreign bankers at its 75th annual convention in Boca Raton, Fla.

"BAFT is an old name that dates back to the old focus on trade," said F. William Hawley 3d, outgoing president of BAFT and Citicorp's vice president in charge of international government relations. "But it has since become an association that focuses on a much broader range of issues significant to international banking."

Established in 1922, when most banks were content to do business within national boundaries, BAFT has during the last decade rapidly extended its scope to issues ranging well beyond trade finance.

In the process, it has increasingly taken on the characteristics of a high-ranking advisory council, whose views are sought by the Clinton administration and Congress.

In recent years, the organization has played a critical role in helping establish U.S. government policy on issues ranging from increased supervision of foreign banks in the United States to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the debate over liberalizing worldwide trade in financial services.

In a less publicized move, the organization also quietly blocked what it believed were misguided attempts to impose economic sanctions on countries that do not subscribe to U.S. free trade policies, pointing out that the biggest losers from such sanctions would be U.S. banks.

Among the issues currently of top concern to BAFT are:

Bolstering support in Congress for U.S. government export finance guarantees through the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investor Corp.

Supporting congressional efforts to revamp U.S. banking laws.

Endorsing efforts to liberalize world trade in financial services under auspices of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization.

Helping smooth the introduction of technology into banking and developing training programs for U.S. and foreign bankers.

BAFT's discreet but growing clout will be amply reflected in the roster of speakers at its convention.

Among them: John B. McCoy, chairman and chief executive of Banc One Corp.; Gerry Cameron, chairman and chief executive of U.S. Bancorp; Gary C. Wendt, chairman and chief executive of GE Capital Corp.; William A. Ryback, associate director for international supervision at the Federal Reserve System; and Michael D.K.W. Foot, executive director of the Bank of England.

Of the 90-odd members of BAFT, only one-third are U.S. banks, and the remainder are mostly foreign banks. However, only U.S. banks hold full membership while foreign banks are restricted to associate membership.

"We wanted it to be an American association, with no confusion between our role and that of other associations," Mr. Hawley explained.

Mr. Hawley is to be succeeded as president of BAFT by Consider "Sid" W. Ross, a senior vice president of Northern Trust Corp. Mr. Hawley emphasized that although the association closely consults its foreign bank members "the decision-making is by American banks and the board is an American institution."

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