U.S. banks significantly increased loans to emerging-market countries last year - but you wouldn't know it from many of their annual reports.
A recent study by Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. concluded that the top U.S lenders to developing countries disclosed only 58% of these loans to shareholders.
Given that this kind of loan caused extreme pain for a good many banks in the 1980s, the Brown Brothers analysts wrote, bank stock investors may be unsettled by this lack of disclosure.
"Of the money-center banks' $62.3 billion in aggregate cross-border exposure to the emerging markets," they disclosed only $36.1 billion to shareholders, said Raphael Soifer and Kenneth E. Lee, the report's authors.
"Cross-border exposure to emerging markets does carry risk," they added. "One would have thought that, if the experience of 1982 to 1989 weren't enough to have made that point indelibly, those of 1994 and early 1995 would have reinforced it," a reference to the Mexican peso devaluation of late 1994 and subsequent economic crisis.
The report extracts bank company loan figures from the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council's quarterly publication, Country Exposure Lending Survey.
The council, an umbrella group for bank regulators, discloses aggregate loan figures by country, not by company.
Using other available data and its own assumptions, Brown Brothers estimated how much each bank had lent to each country, thus calculating a total emerging-markets loan figure for each bank.
While banks are required to report lending data to the council, the Securities and Exchange Commission only requires that companies disclose to shareholders foreign loans that are more than 0.75% of total bank assets.
This is why Chase Manhattan Corp. disclosed to the council that it had loaned $16 billion to developing countries in 1995 but only told shareholders about $3 billion, Brown Brothers said. Chase did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Only two bank companies - Citicorp and BankAmerica Corp. - disclosed their full lending data to shareholders. All other major lenders disclosed only what was legally required, the report's authors said.
J.P. Morgan & Co. said it is comfortable with its emerging-markets exposure and pointed out that the Brown Brothers report relies on "guesstimates" for breaking down the council's data into individual company totals.
Other observers said that, even if the numbers are correct, they are not significant.
"It is a materiality issue," said Diane B. Glossman, a bank analyst at Salomon Brothers Inc. If these loans were disclosed, she added, "I am not sure how having this information would tell you anything definitive about the risk underlying that exposure."
On hearing of Chase's disclosure policy, Raymond Garea of Heine Securities, which is one of the banking company's largest shareholders, said it did not trouble him.
And he questioned whether it was even still a concern because new directives could have been issued on overseas loans since last spring's merger of Chase with Chemical Banking Corp.
Mr. Soifer and Mr. Lee countered that reporting the figures would help Wall Street evaluate the risk the loans pose to these banks.
Among the Brown Brothers report's other findings: Emerging-market lending by all U.S. banks rose 5%, to $83 billion, in 1995 and is up 41% since 1991.
Emerging-market loans by regional banks showed the sharpest increase for any bank category, up 16% in 1995, to $11.3 billion.
Among countries that borrowed heavily in 1995 were Brazil, China, Turkey, South Africa, and the Czech and Slovak republics.
Countries with the largest loan debt outstanding from U.S. banks include Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina.