A consumer group has given top marks to First Union Corp. in what it is billing as the first-ever scorecard on bank-affiliated brokerages.

The Charlotte, N.C., banking company's brokerage unit offered the best mix of low fees, strong mutual fund performance, and disclosure practices among 10 such companies studied by the National Council of Individual Investors. The group gave its lowest marks to the brokerage affiliate of Nor west Corp.

The council, based in Washington, said it conducted the study of the 10 largest bank-affiliated brokerages because banks have risen rapidly in investment sales, and tend to attract the "greenest" investors.

Even though these firms handle less volume than more mainstream brokerage companies, "we realize that investors are increasingly using bank affiliated brokerage firms," said Gerri Detweiler, policy director for the four-month-old group.

The analysis is part of a broader study that also looked at comparable fees and services at nonbank full-services brokerages, as well as discount and "deep" discount brokerages.

Donald A. McMullen Jr., chief executive of First Union Capital Management, said the study shows "that banks have come of age" in the brokerage business. "It's great that we're being analyzed as legitimate purveyors of investment products," he added.

The 10 bank brokerages studied are the industry's largest in terms of retail offices.

First Union's first-place showing was helped by the above-average performance of its proprietary Evergreen Funds, and by its disclosure practices. The rest of the top five: Wachovia Corp., KeyCorp, Barnett Banks, and Citicorp.

Nonbank full-services brokers were also judged on costs, and the breadth of products offered. Costs for discount brokerages and deep discounters were noted, but those firms were not ranked.

Richard M. Joseph, executive vice president of Norwest Investment Services, said the ranking would have little effect on his business, but that the survey does point to areas, such as fees or investment performance, where banks could make improvements.

Still, many bank brokerage fees were generally on par or less than those of their nonbank competitors, the study showed. Consumers would pay an average commission of $101.32 to trade 500 shares of stock at $10 through a bank broker, compared to an average $160.07 for nonbank full-service brokers, according to the study.

If widely distributed, this latest ranking could have a positive impact on bank investment sales, some observers say.

"When rankings are published in the overall fund industry, there is sometimes a short-term boost. Banks could see a lift from this" report, said Joy P. Montgomery, president of Money Marketing Initiatives, Morristown, N.J.

Roger Thomas, a St. Louis-based brokerage consultant, said the impact on bank programs would be minimal because most consumers use these surveys "to confirm or deny what they've already experienced at their brokerages."

He added that "most of the bank programs react to these survey results as if it's either the beginning of utopia or the end of the Earth.

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