WASHINGTON -- How much money - if any - are banks making by managing and selling mutual funds?

That was the big question on bankers' minds at the executive symposium for consumer investments sponsored here last week by the Consumer Bankers Association.

Frank J. Bonetto, executive vice president at Bank of the West, Walnut Creek, Calif., said he didn't have any doubts about the profitability of his investment sales effort.

"I know I make a lot of money at this," Mr. Bonetto said. He said he is able to track his profits because the $5 billion-asset bank uses a marketing firm to sell mutual funds in its branches.

Although he declined to give details on profits, Mr. Bonetto said the bank's sales partner, Marketing One, Portland, Ore., covers all expenses and gives the bank 50% of gross commissions.

But many executives - particularly those from banks that manage their own sales programs - admitted that they can't tell if their efforts are profitable. It's hard for them to break down their costs for marketing, personnel, and operations.

"There are a whole bunch of ideas floating around about how to get a fix on what the costs are, but no one has any easy answers," said one banker, who did not wish to be identified. Even some banks whose investment products programs are in the black said they are not making as much money as expected. Asked if Banc One Corp. had met its objectives, Craig J. Kelly, a senior vice president at the Columbus, Ohio-based bank, responded: "Absolutely not."

The consensus at the symposium was that the investments business will get even tougher.

"Most banks are finding out that it's very hard to grow the business in an intensely competitive market," said Rolland D. Johannsen, president and chief operating officer of Furash & Co., a Washington-based consulting firm.

As customers demand more services and the field gets more crowded, margins are going to shrink, he said.

Bankers echoed Mr. Johannsen's view. "The easy money is over," said B. Lumar Polston, national sales manager at First Union Corp.'s brokerage services unit.

The symposium, which drew 100 attendees, was the second annual investment products conference held by the Arlington, Va.-based trade group, whose members include the nation's biggest retail banks.

Chairing the conference was Thomas P. Johnson Jr., chief retail banking executive at Barnett Banks Inc., Jacksonville, Fla.

Mr. Johnson told the audience it was unthinkable just a few years ago that a retail banking organization would even sponsor an investments meeting.

There are so many rules governing investment product sales that even regulators can find it hard to keep up with them all.

During a session tantalizingly named "The Thin Line Between Sales and Jails," Owen Carney, senior adviser for investment securities at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, was unable to recall a specific regulation.

But Barbara Worthen, general counsel for Fleet Investment Services in Boston, saved the day. "It's Rule 9.1," she reminded the regulator.

A woman of many talents, Ms. Worthen writes poetry when she's flying. En route to the conference, she penned an ode to regulators. The refrain: "I have the F-E-D, O-T-S, O-C-C Blues."

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