* Economist Leme has been at Goldman for 18 years
* Harvard University-graduate to move to São Paulo
* Will take part of regional operational committees
By Aluísio Alves and Guillermo Parra-Bernal
March 14 (Reuters) - Goldman Sachs Group Inc named on Wednesday veteran economist Paulo Leme as chairman of its Brazil unit, as the world's most profitable investment bank seeks to build relationships and land more advisory deals in Latin America's largest economy.
The Brazilian economist, a Harvard University graduate who has spent 18 years at the New York-based firm, was previously Goldman Sachs' chief Latin American economist focusing on Mexico and Brazil. Prior to Goldman, Leme worked for the International Monetary Fund.
Leme will report to Alejandro Vollbrechthausen, president of Goldman's Brazil unit, and Stephen Scherr, head of Goldman's Latin America division. He will move from Miami, where he has been posted since around 2007, to São Paulo for the new position.
One of Leme's main focuses will be on cultivating new clients, a tough task as local investment banks are beefing up scale, poaching talent from foreign rivals and cultivating stronger ties with clients, analysts said.
Rising competition for deals in Brazil is driving firms like Goldman Sachs to gain muscle as confidence in the country's economy rises despite global market turmoil. Investors are increasingly eyeing Brazil as a destination for their money despite a tumble in capital markets activity last year that hammered initial public offerings and bond sales.
"Brazil is living through a very important moment and there are enormous opportunities for Goldman Sachs to serve our clients," Leme said in the release.
Goldman Sachs, the world's top advisor for mergers and acquisitions in 2011 according to Thomson Reuters, ranked fourth in Brazil M&A after participating on 19 deals for a total $17.07 billion.
About $78.64 billion worth of deals were announced in Brazil in the year through Dec. 30, down from $120.61 billion last year, the data showed. In all, 745 deals were announced, compared with 698 transactions in all of 2010.
Leme will also participate on the bank's Brazilian and Latin American operational committees, Goldman Sachs said in a statement.