Many investors in bank mutual funds raked in healthy profits this year as the stock market surged and bonds recovered from last year's dismal performance.
A combination of new sales and robust performance lifted assets in bank domestic stock funds to $78 billion at Nov. 30, a 39% increase from last December, according to data supplied by Lipper Analytical Services Inc., Summit, N.J.
But a 100-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average on Dec. 18 prompted many bankers to reflect on what could happen to mutual fund sales if the new year brings a significant stock downturn.
"I can't help but think that the markets are abnormally high," said William G. Papesh, president of Composite Research and Management Co., the mutual fund management unit of Washington Mutual Co., Seattle.
A slump now would be an ironic development for bank mutual fund customers, many of whom have only recently warmed to equity funds.
"Psychologically, I think people will have a difficult time with normal market adjustments, particularly if they go on for a long period of time," Mr. Papesh said.
But several fund watchers argue that these concerns may be out of place. Indeed, they argue, bank mutual funds may be better positioned than their nonbank competitors to weather a downturn in the domestic equity markets.
Last week, during his annual state of the mutual fund industry address in New York, A. Michael Lipper, president of Lipper Analytical Services, predicted that international or domestic fixed-income funds would likely outperform domestic stock funds in 1996.
And if the U.S. stock market sours, as many market watchers predict, the highest-flying mutual funds - such as technology portfolios - would likely sink fastest and furthest.
That pattern, however, could actually spare bank programs from some of the worst sales declines or asset defections, since few of them boast such specialized portfolios.
In the face of any significant stock market drop, bankers may have less to worry about than direct marketers of no-load funds, some observers said.
In fact, Mr. Lipper, who is more often a critic than an admirer of banks' mutual fund efforts, said that bankers could even prosper if times turn tough.
He cited a recent uptick in the share of mutual funds sold with loads, or sales fees, in Canada during a prolonged decline in that country's stock and bond prices.
"I would think the same thing would happen when the U.S. market goes down," he said.
In fact, during a market downturn, the hand-holding that bank brokers are known for could give them an advantage over nonbank brokers.
"I think we'll see our friends at the banks being the high-commission shops," Mr. Lipper said.
Many bankers aren't waiting to prepare their customers for an eventual decline.
"We continue in all of our education to stress the importance of long- term investing - especially with equities," said R. Gregory Knopf, managing director for the Stepstone mutual fund family at Union Bank, Los Angeles.
The heady stock market only underscores the bank's strategic emphasis on periodic investment programs, Mr. Knopf said. Dollar cost averaging and a focus on investing for retirement remain underpinnings of the bank's marketing strategy.
That goal-oriented approach makes sense to one veteran of the bank mutual fund business.
"If you're out selling the hot product - and not selling it to the proper group with proper disclosure - there will be a backlash. You can bet on it," said Ronald Petnuch, senior vice president Federated Services Co., Pittsburgh.
Mr. Petnuch said smart bankers learned a valuable lesson from the bond fund difficulties in 1994. "It was the product pushers - not the service pushers - who got hurt."
But even if bankers have neglected to prepare their mutual fund customers for the worst performance problems, their other business ties may cushion the blow.
"Other relationships with the bank, such as trust relationships, add to the stickiness of the assets," said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in East Greenwich, R.I.
After all, Mr. Bobroff said, most bank mutual fund customers "didn't come to the bank for performance reasons, they came for service."