United States companies have spent more than US$8 billion buying large stakes in Asian industry during the first half of the year, according to statistical researcher Securities Data. Second quarter buying of Asian companies, which amounted to $4.8 billion, exceeded the total for last year, research reveals. Depressed asset values, weak currencies and distressed markets have made Asian companies a tempting target for cash-rich US firms. Experts claim record volumes of US dollars are expected to continue flooding into Asia as the regional crisis rolls into its second year. These firms are targeting strategic arenas - particularly the financial services sector. Strategies range from building-up stakes in Asian competitors, cherry-picking assets and takeovers. The increasing demand on finance houses to have global cover means that low Asian prices have offered an opportunity to expand into the region. Three of the four biggest deals involve the takeover of Japanese companies. The largest was finance and leasing company Associates First Capital's $1 billion acquisition of Japanese bank DEC Finance. Number two was General Electric Capital's $900 million purchase of Toho Mutual Life. In some cases, US operations have bought that part of a company needed to boost its Asian strategy. For example, Merrill Lynch's acquisition of 30 branches of Yamaichi Securities will be used as a bridgehead into the Japanese domestic market. The region's nascent computer industry and utilities are also being snapped up cheaply. According to Securities Data, merger and acquisition activity began to pick up in the fourth quarter of last year. During that period, firms spent about $1.8 billion on 33 deals in Asia - almost equalling the spending for the previous nine months. More than 100 deals were completed in the first six months of this year. Securities Data spokesman Richard Peterson said: 'These are record amounts of mergers and acquisitions. 'The volume of deals seen in the first six months of this year is likely to continue. More deals are being discovered as firms go out after increased market share in Indonesia and Japan. 'US firms that were initially reluctant about mergers and acquisitions in Asia are taking another look as the crisis drags on.' Roger Scher, vice-president of rating company Duff & Phelps, said the strength of the US dollar against Asian currencies had slashed the real cost of many acquisition targets. 'If and when the crisis settles down it could be reinvigorating for Asian competitiveness. Heightened competition, more transparency, less loans on short-term debt finance and less government directed lending will strengthen Asian economies. 'Transfer of ownership is nothing to worry about,' said Mr Scher. However, 'there are a lot of major structural changes that need to be put in place. There could be foot dragging [concerning reforms] by some Asian economies', he warned. Mr Scher said a rash of Japanese mergers and acquisitions in the US during the 1980s caused widespread domestic concern about the loss of economic power, adding these worries proved ill-founded as the US economy rebounded. 'This will help revive competition. It does not mean that foreign companies are going to own everything in Asia.' Securities Data said investment and commodity firms had been targeted in the past six months, with about $1.85 billion spent on nine deals. Asian insurance companies attracted more than $1 billion in foreign investment, while $870 million was spent on electric, gas and water distribution companies. Hong Kong companies on the US shopping list included cosmetic manufacturer Red Earth International, Hanon Investment Group and Thompson Worldwide Partners, an advertising agency.