If you've ever done business abroad, you'll probably appreciate a new service being offered by American National Bank of New York. It allows you to set up a foreign currency checking account with no minimum balance, and without a monthly service charge, provided you maintain a balance equivalent to $10,000.

The service is geared toward small companies engaged in international trade. While large companies can afford to set up foreign bank accounts or even handle their own currency exchange internally, small import/export firms generally insist on doing their business in dollars, at a lousy exchange rate, and thus miss out on deals that require the use of foreign currency. Alternatively, they can arrange with a bank to make the necessary currency exchange when the deal is completed. For that service, they pay a premium, and run the risk of complications if the deal falls through or the exchange rate moves against them.

American National, with $30 million in assets, is the first bank to offer foreign currency checking accounts in the United States, making it easier for small companies to get into foreign trade. The bank is betting that enough companies will sign up to make the service profitable. If they do, other banks are likely to follow.