Having developed a taste for stock mutual funds, some bank brokerage customers are sampling more exotic cuisines.
Sales of aggressive growth and international funds, once considered too spicy for investors at banks, are starting to take off, according to sales executives at banks and mutual fund companies.
In a round of interviews this week, these executives said strong performance is fueling interest in aggressive growth funds, which are near the high end of the investment-risk spectrum.
International funds, meanwhile, are drawing attention from investors who want to participate in the expected growth of foreign markets and cushion themselves against a possible correction in the U.S. stock market.
Sales executives said bank customers' interest in these investments marks a dramatic change from just one or two years ago, when they clung to bond funds as alternatives to certificates of deposit.
"You used to never be able to get banks to sell anything other than training-wheel funds," said Maryann Bruce, senior vice president and director financial institutions at Oppenheimer Management Co., $31.7 billion-asset fund company in New York.
At some bank brokerages, stock mutual funds dominate sales. At First Union Corp., for instance, 85% of fund sales are in stock funds, according to William Ennis, president of the Charlotte, N.C., company's Evergreen Investment Services subsidiary.
Mr. Ennis said bank customers don't deserve their reputation as conservative investors. "They understand a prudent approach to investing is to have a complete asset allocation, and aggressive growth and international funds fit into that."
The tilt toward more aggressive investing by bank brokerage customers comes amid strong sales of stock funds throughout the mutual fund industry.
Net new sales of stock mutual funds totaled $11.9 billion in July, up 52% from June's $7.8 billion, the Investment Company Institute reported this week. The figures exclude reinvested dividends and redemptions.
Assets of aggressive growth funds grew 11% between June and July, to $166.9 billion, making them the fastest-growing category of mutual funds.
By contrast, bond funds pulled in just $647.5 million in July. In June, $693.8 million flowed out of these funds.
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"As time has gone on with this bull market, bank customers have invested more and more in stock mutual funds, and are now in the comfort zone," said Jack L. Kopnisky, president of Keycorp Investments, the brokerage subsidiary of $63.3 billion-asset Keycorp, Cleveland.
Sales of stock funds that invest for growth or for growth and income jumped roughly 60% between July and August, Mr. Kopnisky said. And aggressive growth funds such as Putnam Voyager and Aim Constellation Fund are contributing around 6% to Keycorp's sales volume.
Other popular portfolios include the Victory Diversified Stock Fund and Fidelity Advisor Growth Opportunity Fund.
Mr. Kopnisky said Keycorp's fund sales leveled off in August after a sizzling July, rising only 5% July's sales had jumped a record 21% over June.
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Bond funds and a growth and income portfolio remain Oppenheimer's top sellers among bank customers.
But the Oppenheimer Global Fund is starting to rack up sales through banks, with Citicorp, First Union, and Barnett Banks Inc. among those selling the fund. Sales through banks rose 25% between June and July, Ms. Bruce said.
One reason for the upsurge is that Oppenheimer has started promoting its global funds to bank-based brokers, positioning them as a tool for diversifying assets.
The company is providing bank brokers with a "seminar kit" that teaches them how to explain international investing to customers.
"Banks are more willing to sell equities and diversify their customers' portfolios outside the U.S. with global funds," Ms. Bruce said.
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Among bank clients of Franklin Resources, San Mateo, Calif., bond funds are outselling stock funds 3 to 1. But that gap is closing, said Toby Mumford, national sales manager of its bank division.
For instance, sales of its Templeton line of international funds were up 10% over the past 12 months, Mr. Mumford said. While demand is clearly up, it also helps that bank brokers have become savvier about international funds, he said.
"I'm not saying these reps weren't smart; they just weren't exposed to it," Mr. Mumford said. Banks are beginning to sell more of the Templeton Foreign Fund and Templeton Growth Fund.
Mr. Mumford expects banks to further expand the fund categories they offer to survive against brokerage firms and independent financial planners.
"We're seeing a lot of investors very interested in our developing markets fund," he said. "Are the banks going to jump into that? In time they're going to have to."
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Even customers who want only income-generating investments are showing a newfound courage in their investment choices.
This summer's popular seller at Huntington Bancshares, a $16.4 billion- asset bank in Columbus, Ohio, is Van Kampen American Capital's Prime Rate Fund, which aggressively seeks yield by investing in corporate loans.
The fund's attraction is that the value of the principal isn't as sensitive to interest rate movements as bonds in a typical long-term fixed- income fund. However, the monthly yield moves with interest rates.
Customers include these funds in a portfolio of bond funds and CDs, said Richard Blythe, president of Huntington Investment Co.
That's a far cry from the timid bank customer. "For 50 years they bought nothing but CDs. Now somebody is explaining to them the benefits of owning investment products," he said.
At Star Banc Corp., Cincinnati, customers are flocking to a different kind of high-yield fund. About seven months ago, the $7.9 billion-asset bank began offering Star Strategic Income Fund, an aggressive portfolio that invests in real estate investment trusts and corporate bonds.
Randy Bateman, senior vice president and chief investment officer at the bank, said the new fund has outsold by 60% the bank's best-performing fund, Star Relative Value Fund, which invests in small-capitalization stocks.