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HSBC in Latin America: Good prices but is there a strategy?

Over the past two years all eyes have been on the moves by Spanish banks into Latin America, with Banco Bilbao Vizcaya (BBV), Banco Santander and Banco Central Hispano (BCH) all piecing together high-profile regional networks. But suddenly a more powerful entrant has arrived on the scene, with HSBC Holdings buying up banks in a rapid succession of deals.

Over the past four months HSBC has spent more than $2 billion for stakes in Bamerindus in Brazil, Banco del Sur in Peru, Grupo Financiero Serfin in Mexico and Banco Roberts in Argentina. And more deals are expected, with observers anticipating an increase in its holdings in the Banco Santiago group in Chile, plus a possible further acquisition in Argentina.

"All they need now is a strategy," was the recent comment of one Spanish-language magazine in Latin America, referring to HSBC's spending binge on a mixture of minority positions and controlling stakes across the region. And there are certainly doubters, who point to the cultural affinity the Spanish banks have with Latin America, and wonder whether HSBC management will be able to make it all work.

But while waiting to see a coherent regional strategy emerge, analysts agree HSBC has a key advantage - it is starting off by paying low asset prices.

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