MEXICO CITY -- Several Mexican banks are considering spreading their newly privatized wings in the southwestern United States, but analysts foresee a cautious rather than hurried move to establish branches.

Bankers confirmed they are casting an eye north, although few definite plans have been hatched yet. They stressed that their hands are full adjusting to their privatized state.

"We have to arrange our system here in Mexico first," said one banker, who expects to spend the next 18 to 24 months modernizing operations and consolidating positions.

2 Forces for Expansion

Analysts said a growing need for trade finance as regional commerce expands under the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, and a desire to serve retail needs of the growing Hispanic population in the U.S. Southwest would be the two forces driving such international moves.

With the free trade agreement, many Mexican banks will want to open branches abroad, said Abel Hibert, local representative of Philadelphia-based Ciemex-Wefa.

Under Nafta, Mexican financial-services markets will be opened to U.S. and Canadian participation by the year 2000, with some limitations in effect through 2007.

Mr. Hibert said it would take time for some of the new private-sector bank owners in Mexico to recoup the high prices they paid.

Serious Thought in '93

U.S. branching is not something that will happen tomorrow, said Stefano Natella, senior banking analyst at First Boston Corp., adviser to the Mexican government on bank privatizations.

The big banks will likely start thinking seriously about setting up U.S. branches late in 1993, Mr. Natella said. In order to succeed in retail banking, he added, the Mexicans will need a network of at least 10 branches.

Bancomer, Mexico's second-biggest bank, is also considering an expansion of its U.S. presence.

Bancomer Chief's Letter

It has agencies in Los Angeles and New York and owns Grossmont Bank in San Diego. The primary activity of the U.S. agencies of Bancomer and other Mexican banks is to issue certificates of deposit for Mexican businesses.

In a recent letter to the editor in American Banker, Bancomer chief executive officer Ricardo Guajardo Touche wrote: "Within the next decade, we envision taking advantage of this potential for growth, although specific plans have not yet been drawn up."

"Our goal is to improve our ability to manage international flows of capital and trade, as these play an increasingly important role in the future success of Mexico," he wrote.

Francisco Vizcaya, executive director of the international division at Banca Serfin, the third-largest Mexican bank, said it is exploring the possibility of branching in the United States. It currently has agencies in New York and Los Angeles.

"The free trade agreement obliges us to increase our support," Mr. Vizcaya said. In the past, Serfin has been one of the banks most involved in international trade finance, he added.

Banco del Norte, a regional bank operating chiefly in northern Mexico, wants to strengthen and expand its home positions before moving abroad.

But it plans an eventual move into the southwestern United States as clients increase cross-border trade, said Javier Munoz, the bank's director of marketing. "We want to strengthen our business with existing clients," he said.

Mexican banks would also have to deal with Federal Reserve rules, analysts said.

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