In a fresh sign of U.S. banks' willingness to put money on the table in Latin America, NationsBank Corp. has acquired a controlling stake in a Brazilian bank.

NationsBank completed the purchase Friday of a 51% position in Banco Liberal, Sao Paolo, which specializes in corporate finance, asset management, and underwriting, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte, N.C.-based banking company confirmed.

Terms were not disclosed, but a source close to NationsBank estimated the price at $50 million.

The acquisition was the fifth by a U.S. bank in Latin America since last January. Forays into Latin America-viewed as the height of folly after the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s-have been gathering steam as U.S. banks expand their retail and corporate banking activities there.

Since January 1997, Wachovia Corp. has bought a Brazilian bank and American Express Bank Ltd. has acquired a 50% stake in one; Citicorp has bought a Mexican bank; and BankBoston Corp. has purchased Deutsche Bank's retail network in Argentina.

Also, Norwest Financial, the consumer finance arm of Norwest Corp., this month acquired Finvercon, an Argentine consumer finance company.

More Latin American deals may be in the wind. J.P. Morgan & Co. is reportedly considering buying up to 20% of Grupo Serfin, Mexico's third- largest bank. A Morgan spokeswoman declined to comment.

The NationsBank spokeswoman said the move into Brazil "allows us to serve our U.S. clients more effectively, gives us a foothold in an extremely active market, and allows us to participate in an enormous number of privatizations expected to take place over the next three to four years."

She added that the acquisition "doesn't put our balance sheet at risk at all since 80% of the bank's income is from fees."

Analysts noted that the NationsBank acquisition is rather small and fits in with the bank's efforts to move beyond the domestic market.

"It's an opportunistic experiment," said Nancy Bush, a banking analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman. "You can't expect an institution with the breadth and scope of NationsBank to restrict itself to domestic banking. Sooner or later they are going to have strong ties to Latin America."

Under the agreement it unveiled Tuesday, Banco Liberal remains under the management of its three top Brazilian executives: Aldo Floris, president; Antonio Carlos, vice president; and Lauro de Luca, financial director.

Founded in 1942, Liberal obtained a banking license in 1989. The bank is reported to be the 10th-largest equity underwriting firm in Brazil and the fourth-largest manager of foreign investments in Brazil with some $2 billion under management.

Acquiring Liberal gives NationsBank a platform for further developing activities in Brazil, where many of its U.S. corporate customers have sizable operations.

NationsBank is keen on participating in an anticipated $100 billion worth of privatizations over the next few years by helping Brazilian and U.S. corporations finance the purchase of government-owned Brazilian companies, especially electrical, utilities, and telecommunications companies.

NationsBank this month extended a $250 million bridge loan to the mining company Companhia Vale do Rio Doce as well as an $18 million loan to Gazeta Mercantil, a financial media company.

NationsBank's expansion in Brazil is part of a broader move to extend its international reach. In the past two years, the bank has increased the number of its offices outside the United States to 14 countries from six, opening branches and representative offices in locations ranging from Bombay to Bogota.

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