The upheaval in Asian financial markets has done little to undercut the optimism of U.S. bankers in the region.
Though they acknowledged the downside of loan exposures and a possible slowdown in credit demand, they said the hazards are outweighed by profit opportunities in trading, risk management, and advisory services.
"What may be a setback for some means opportunities for others," said Antony K. Leung, Chase Manhattan Corp.'s managing director and regional manager for China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
The positive outlook, typical of U.S. bank executives in Asia, flies in the face of concerns among investors that U.S. banks have been hurt by the recent upheavals emanating from Asian currency and stock markets.
U.S. bankers in Hong Kong said they were not too ruffled by the market gyrations. With Asian equity markets in a weakened state, Mr. Leung predicted corporate demand for bank loans will increase. As stronger corporations swallow up weaker ones, banks involved in mergers and acquisitions should be in position for a stronger deal flow.
"We tend to make money in times of volatility and we tend to focus on stronger clients," Mr. Leung said. "Stronger corporations with cash can pick up a lot of good assets and Chase is still willing to finance them."
Bankers and analysts pointed out that even though Asian exposures have grown quickly in recent years, they are small in relation to total assets. The observers also stressed that it remains to be seen whether losses will be significant.
"We will certainly be increasing our credit provisions in Asia, but building provisions is very different from losses," said Robert P. Morrow 3d, group executive vice president for Asia wholesale banking at BankAmerica Corp.
Any losses "will not be material to Bank of America," he said.
In a similar vein, Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service, this week reaffirmed ratings on Chase, Citicorp, and BankAmerica. The U.S.-based rating agencies said potential trading losses are not likely to hurt the banks' creditworthiness.
Analysts saw no reason to disagree with the immediate outlook of Hong Kong-based bankers. However, they did point out that no one is really sure if the crisis is over nor how serious it may eventually get.
"It is too early to make any predictions and the real risk is that there may be a serious fallout out in Japan," said Raphael Soifer, a banking analyst at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. If that happens, he said, U.S. banks could wind up with far bigger problems than from their relatively limited exposure in Southeast Asia.
To be sure, major U.S. banks have rapidly increased corporate lending and trading in emerging market securities over the last few years. Citicorp, BankAmerica, and BankBoston Corp. are also heavily involved in consumer lending in emerging markets.
Ever since banks lost billions of dollars in loans during the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s, many have opted to originate emerging- market credits and then sell them off to other institutions or investors.
The banks have also focused on fee and commission businesses such as trading and financial advisory, and on trade finance and other short-term lending.
The shift in strategy first paid off after Mexico suffered a severe financial crisis in December 1994. Over the next year, U.S. banks' profits surged, fueled by trading. Citicorp, for example, earned $103 million in Mexico in 1995. That same year, BankBoston's earnings from Latin America reached $93 million, then it climbed to $145 million in 1996.
Still, bankers believe there is little that makes the current crisis any different from the one in 1994. They also see little that would prompt them to revise long-term plans for Asian expansion.
"Clearly there has been a lot of volatility but we see this as an adjustment," said Stephen H. Long, Citicorp's country corporate officer for Hong Kong and head of the North Asia division. "We see nothing that would lead us to change our strategy."
Consumer bankers are equally sanguine about the outlook for their business.
"We've had zero losses on mortgage lending in the last 10 years," said James E. Hulihan Jr., group executive vice president and head of Asian retail banking at BankAmerica.
"The No. 1 thing people in Asia want is a house," he said. "People will die before they give up their homes."