U.S. banks are taking their expertise in securitizing and trading nonperforming loans to overseas markets.

In a widely publicized move, Bankers Trust New York Corp. has agreed with Nippon Credit Bank Ltd. to restructure and sell about $40 billion worth of assets, including many of the troubled Japanese bank's real estate loans.

And other U.S. banks are becoming similarly involved outside the United States in either trading or taking over "distressed" loans and selling them to investors at a steep discount.

Sources estimated the potential market for buying and selling problem loans outside the United States at more than $100 billion.

"The market in the U.S. is flat; it's overpriced; and the spreads are very thin," said Cindy Tzerman, a partner at Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue in New York. "So traders are looking elsewhere."

Citicorp, as well as Bankers Trust, is considering buying part of the roughly $14 billion of problem bank loans in Mexico that have been taken over by the Mexican government, then selling them. BankAmerica Corp. is also actively trading European distressed loans from London as well as problem bonds and loans in Asia.

"It's very much an American-run market," said Peter Young, managing director for loan trading at Bank of America in London.

Bankers and market participants said that, although the amount of activity varies from country to country, banks are considering handling problem loans in places as far apart as South Korea and Argentina. They added that the richest pickings may be in Japan, where banks hold an estimated $240 billion worth of problem real estate loans.

"We look forward to working with Nippon Credit and other financial institutions, should they choose to select us," said Frank Newman, Bankers Trust's chairman and chief executive, during his company's annual meeting Tuesday.

Tokyo-based Nippon Credit had nearly $147 billion of assets at midyear 1996, when it was ranked as the world's 52d-largest bank. It has run into severe difficulties in recent years in the wake of large-scale speculative lending to Japanese companies that subsequently went bankrupt.

In its partnership with Nippon, Bankers Trust has also agreed to serve Nippon Credit customers outside Japan since the Japanese bank has decided to close its overseas offices. The two banking companies may also acquire "token" equity stakes in each other, a spokesman for Bankers Trust said.

The Nippon Credit deal is the latest in a series of such agreements for Bankers Trust. It recently restructured and sold problem loans for Barclays Bank France; Compagnie Union des Assurances de Paris, a French insurance company; and Consortium de Realizations, an institution set up to dispose of problem loans at France's Credit Lyonnais.

Securitizing and trading problem loans began in the United States in the 1980s after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took over and sold nonperforming loan portfolios acquired from bankrupt U.S. thrifts.

However, as the market in the United States has wound down during a six- year economic expansion, business is developing elsewhere.

But while observers see opportunity for U.S. banks in globalizing the distressed-loan business, they also pointed out obstacles.

"In this country, people speak the same language and know the rules," said a large U.S. investor who declined to be identified. "But when you move overseas to places like Mexico and Asia, you don't speak the language, and you don't know the rules."

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