Breaking with a long-standing policy of not opening full-fledged banking offices overseas, Wachovia Corp. has agreed to buy a Brazilian bank from Portugal's Banco Commercial Portugues SA.
Hugh Durden, an executive vice president and head of Wachovia Corporate Services Inc., acknowledged that the decision ran counter to the bank's previous policy. But he also stressed that it came in direct response to demand from Wachovia's corporate customers for international services.
"What's very clear is that international capabilities and global services will be a key determinant of a bank's ability to maintain and develop large corporate relationships," he said. "Clients want to do business with a smaller number of people with a broader array of services."
He did not exclude further acquisitions or initiatives in the international domain, noting that Wachovia's corporate customers are increasingly active in the North American Free Trade Zone, Mercosur, Southeast Asia, and Europe.
Until now, the Winston-Salem, N.C., banking company had maintained only representative offices in London and Tokyo and a loan booking office in the Cayman Islands.
Wachovia said last week that it would buy the $100 million-asset Banco Portugues do Atlantico-Brazil SA, Sao Paolo, together with Saenz Hoffman International Ltd., a Brazilian finance company. Wachovia will hold a majority stake in WSH Holdings Ltd., a holding company the two firms have set up to take control of the Brazilian bank.
"Brazil has been one of the top three markets for trade and investment activity (by Wachovia clients) over the last several years," Mr. Durden said, "and this trend is expected to continue."
Wachovia expects to complete the acquisition by midyear; it declined to disclose the deal's price. The Brazilian bank will focus on trade finance, but its operations will be expanded to other commercial, merchant, and investment banking services.
Analysts observed that, despite Wachovia's known reluctance to invest in offices outside the United States, it was prepared to alter the policy in order to meet corporate customers' demand.
"I give Wachovia credit for being more creative than they are commonly perceived to be," said Lawrence Vitale, a banking analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co. "They're pretty smart guys, and they're going to the places their customers are going to."
The deal is part of an accelerating movement into the international domain by U.S. banks bent on expanding their range of services to corporate customers.
In recent months, for example, First Chicago NBD Corp. and Chase Manhattan Corp. have opened offices in Asia, while J.P. Morgan & Co. and Bankers Trust New York Corp. have set up offices in South Africa. Bank of Boston Corp. is also seeking to acquire banks in Argentina and Brazil.
The $47.5 billion-asset Wachovia has been gradually building international involvement through alliances with London-based HSBC Holdings PLC and Amsterdam-based Bank Mendes Gans.
More recently, it obtained Federal Reserve Board approval to set up Wachovia International Capital Corp. as part of a bid to expand international financial advisory services, including investment and tax advice and foreign exchange, to multinational clients.