Bank of America Merrill Lynch's (NYSE:BAC) move to fire one-fifth of the managing directors in its Asia operations, while significant, is only the latest sign foreign banks are jumping ship on investment banking opportunities within that market.

Citing sources with direct knowledge of the matter, Reuters reported Tuesday that 15 of the bank's 75 managing directors would be gone by mid-March through attrition, in-company transfers or layoffs. Reuters cited a Hong Kong-based headhunter who described the action as "carnage."

The Dow Jones Newswires had already reported Monday that Michael Cho, co-head of mergers and acquisitions for most of the bank's Asia operations would be leaving.

Managing directors are common targets when banks reorganize, especially if they fail to bring in new clients.

The most recent move, however, can be seen as part of a wider trend where foreign banks are scaling back Asian operations, either because they no longer see the geographic region as core to their business or due to underwhelming results. 

In an article earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal noted banks like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Japan's Nomura Securities were already laying off "small numbers of workers" in Asia, and firings would pick up once bonuses were cleared in early January. Morgan Stanley, which announced a plan in late December to lay off 1,600 employees globally was noted as likely to be handing out the largest number of pink slips.

The main reasons include a disappointing market in Indian equities -- where banking fees have been drive down to zero in some cases-- and the fraud-laden nature of the Chinese IPO market, which firms like Goldman Sachs say they are wary of entering. The squeeze on fees in India, China and elsewhere has been fueled by increased competition from local players, including some that are state owned.

"Will people question the value proposition of Asia? Absolutely, and they should," said Gaby Abdelnour, Asia-Pacific chief executive for JPMorgan, was quoted in the article as saying.

In addition to cuts in Asia, Bank of America has been trimming its payroll in a project called New BAC that aims to reduce its payroll by 30,000.

The European financial crisis has also hit banks, particularly as British banks -- long players in the region's banking but now being reined in by regulators back home to focus on core businesses -- have pulled back.

HSBC, the British behemoth whose name stands for "Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation," earlier in the year announced it was laying off 1,000 employees in Hong Kong.

Those cuts might pale in comparison to the ones likely to be announced by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is currently undergoing a "nuclear winter" strategy some expect will shutter its entire 18,900-strong global banking arm.