For more than a decade, the Washington-based Bankers Association for Foreign Trade has played a critical but little publicized role helping to guide administration policy on international banking issues. It also has helped banks adjust to the internationalization of their markets and customers.
Better known as BAFT, the association is officially dedicated to fostering and promoting international trade, finance, and investment between the United States and its trading partners.
Its guiding principles are open access to financial markets, support for the practice of "national treatment, "and open and nondiscriminatory trade practices.
Founded in 1921, it is the oldest U.S. association that brings together U.S. and foreign banks to resolve issues affecting business, commerce, and finance here.
As executive director of the association since 1975, Mary Condeelis has been instrumental helping organize a range of seminars, conventions, and programs for banks.
At the same time, she has worked behind the scenes, briefing members of Congress and administration officials on trade-related issues.
Ms. Condeelis joined the association in 1971 after four years with the Overseas Development Council, a Washington think tank on issues related to Third World development policies.
Before that, she worked for the syndicated columnist Walter Lippman and was personal assistant to Katherine Graham, publisher and owner of The Washington Post.
In the following interview, Ms. Condeelis outlines her views on some of the critical issues confronting the association's members as world trade negotiations in Geneva move into high gear.
Q.: What do you see as the association's top priorities?
CONDEELIS: I see our priorities falling into three areas: Monitoring the gains we've achieved in Mexico under Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement), the GATT (General greement on Tariffs and Trade) negotiations, and free trade in financial services and trade finance, which has been a touchstone of BAFT since it was founded in 1921.
Q.: GATT and the pending Fair Trade in Financial Services bill seem to be the most immediate issues at hand. What is the association's position on the world trade negotiations?
CONDEELIS: We are concerned about the course of the GATT negotiations and our members are actively working to bring more (financial) market access proposals to the table.
Allow me to point out that there were virtually none a few weeks ago. That left U.S. banks feeling they were getting the worst of both worlds - we had no proposals on the table from countries where we need market access, while our own market remained for the most part open to their banking institutions.
Since then, we've been working closely with Treasury and the administration to get other countries, mainly in Asia and Latin America, to provide market access.
Q.: The pending Free Trade in Financial Services bill makes it possible for the United States to retaliate against countries that don't allow U.S. banks in by refusing to allow banks from those countries to expand here. Does the association support this position?
CONDEELIS: We support Fair Trade and Financial Services for several reasons.
The most compelling one is that we've seen how poorly the negotiations were going and we were persuaded by the administration that Fair Trade in Financial Services would be an important tool in encouraging those countries to put proposals on the table.
Originally, our biggest concern was the legislation's protectionist thrust. However, we find the current draft more acceptable because it will provide protection to our trading partners who do offer market access.
Q.: What role has the association been playing in the current GATT negotiations'?
CONDEELIS: We have been advising the administration about our concerns and working together with other financial trade groups, and we have been consulting with our counterparts in other countries to encourage them to urge their representatives at the negotiations to provide more cooperation.
Q.: How important is trade finance for the association?
CONDEELIS: Trade is a key area for us and has been a touchstone for BAFT since 1921. We are currently experiencing a revival in international trade and the country has become much more internationally sensitized.
Exports have been the brightest thing on the U.S. economic radar screen so far and we're extremely pleased that the administration is pursuing a national trade policy aggressively .
We have been working closely with the Trade Promotion Coordinating Committee headed by Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, which is hammering out recommendations in this area.
Q.: What would association members station to gain from a more coordinated national policy on trade?
CONDEELIS: In both the export promotion and regulatory areas, BAFT members would benefit in that currently regulatory measures often constrain banks from engaging in all of the activities they would like to be involved in.
Export controls are currently a subject the administration is addressing, and it is a good example. One thing that would help would be greater coordination of the export-related programs of various government agencies.
Banks often find it difficult to access the various programs and select those that best suit their needs and those of their clients.
We also think more effort should be devoted to helping small business. It's one of the fastest-growing export sectors.
Q.: Is the association doing anything on its own to help banks involved in international trade?
CONDEELIS: Absolutely. One area in which we are involved is matching information supply with demand.
A chronic problem for both exporters and banks is a mismatch, that is: Exporters find it difficult to find banks that are interested in their kinds of transactions, while banks are always looking for the right kind of trade business.
We felt that what was needed was a centralized information source on banks that can provide trade finance services and open an information line to exporters and banks and government export programs.
Our Access to Export Capital, or AXCAP, program attempts to address this problem.
By means of a toll-free number, 1-800-49-AXCAP, the exporter will reach a trade specialist who can provide a list of banks that meet the exporter's requirements. The system has been up and running for about a month. Over 150 banks are online, foreign and U.S., and the number is climbing rapidly.
Q.: Are you satisfied with the Nafta agreement with regard to financial services?
CONDEELIS: From the standpoint of financial services, yes.
Keep in mind that financial services were not part of the talks at the start.
BAFT was the industry adviser and spokesman to Treasury on financial services.
Through BAFT efforts, the Treasury secretary and President insisted that financial services be included. The agreement is one of the big success stories and will benefit all U.S. incorporated institutions.
Q.: Are more banks starting to become involved in trade?
CONDEELIS: I see an enormous stirring out there.
For example, attendance at our last annual trade finance conference in Chicago practically tripled and 90% was nonmember attendance. I consider that to be a pretty good sign.
Q.: You include foreign banks among your members. Do You also act as a spokesman for foreign banks in the United States?
CONDEELIS: As a U.S. organization, we speak for foreign banks only to the extent that they share issues of common concern to U.S. banks.
Q.: Looking back, is there anything you feel you would have like to have achieved but were not able to?
CONDEELIS: I think I would like to have seen more banks involved in international markets.
Given the number of banks in this country, I would have liked to see more of them involved in trade finance.
I would also have wished for a more proactive effort by government to work with the private sector in making the U.S. internationally more competitive.
I feel the private sector has been on its own in this area. I think that a stronger public/private sector partnership could benefit everyone.
I believe these efforts are coming together now, but it's something I would have liked to have seen happen sooner.