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Miami bank community growing, but still local

Miami, often spoken of as the ''capital of Latin America,'' is an ideal center for communications south of the border. And it's without a doubt the best place for direct air connections to Central and South America.

''It's a unique financial center,'' observes Alexander McW. Wolfe Jr., president of Southeast Bank here. But he adds that it has not yet reached the level of London or New York. ''South Florida is still relatively unsophisticated and immature.'' Miami is, in short, not really in the big leagues yet.

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Which may be just as well. With ''most countries in Latin America . . . facing a very difficult external payments situation,'' as one banker puts it, Miami's very immaturity as a financial center is limiting its exposure to risks of ''nonperforming'' loans.

Southeast Bank, Florida's largest and the state's only bank with its own international economics group, has only 5 percent of its $3.6 billion in loans overseas, says J. Antonio Villamil, vice-president and chief economist. This includes $125 million to Brazil, $78 million to Mexico, and $25 million to Venezuela.

Florida banks simply aren't in that group of two dozen or so that have the lion's share of loans in Latin America, he says.

Moreover, Florida banks generally have experienced enough natural growth to keep them out of trouble. ''We don't have to beat the bushes'' for risky loans, says Mr. Wolfe. It isn't something he boasts about, but his bank, like many across the state, gets deposits faster than it can loan them out.

Wolfe and Villamil cite two kinds of financial activity not yet part of the Miami scene: major syndicated loans and a major foreign currency market. There are signs, though, that these may not be far off - perhaps only five years. The rhythm of change here has been rapid. Mr. Wolfe observes, ''Seven years ago we had a 'foreign department,' '' handling letters of credit and other nuts and bolts of rudimentary international trade. Now Southeast Bank has a full-fledged international economics group.

In Mr. Wolfe's view, though, Miami still lacks the specialized financial work force characteristic of a major money center. ''London has always had a great staff of trained people - traders, brokers, lawyers - who've grown up in the business since they were kids in knee pants. They've seen everything. And you can hire whatever you need. New York's the same way. But that human service base isn't really here yet,'' though local universities are tooling up to fill the gap.

The much-vaunted ''Latin American connection'' here is actually two distinct phenomena, Mr. Wolfe says. On one hand, there are over 100 corporations with Latin American headquarters here, many of them in Coral Gables, appealing for its moss-draped charm and its easy access to the Miami airport. ''These are not typically strategy centers, but rather administrative offices,'' although here too there are signs of change.

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On the other hand, there are what Mr. Wolfe calls the ''Latin entrepreneurs, '' the owners of small shops, the import-export dealers. ''These were probably greater catalysts than any of those companies in Coral Gables to the growth of this community as a commercial center, and even as a financial center.''

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