BOCA RATON, Fla. - The fight for investor money and loyalty may lead banks and securities firms to the same conclusion: If you can't beat 'em, why not try a joint venture?

Though some banks and securities firms may merge, experts say it is more likely that partnerships will mark the future as both industries skirmish for a larger slice of American wealth.

Attending the Securities Industry Association's annual meeting last week, brokerage executives pointed to a projected 1993 pre-tax profit of $8.8 billion (nearly a 30% return on equity) as evidence of their success.

But the future will be tougher, they concede, and many are, closely watching a joint venture between Dean Witter Reynolds and Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank.

"It could be a model for the future," said Marc Lackritz, president of the 700-member industry trade group. "We'll have to wait and see."

High-profile Test Case

Since it received regulatory approval in April, the venture, known as NationSecurities, has grown steadily. A staff of 640 brokers is expected by yearend. But few brokerages are likely to copy the venture until it pays off.

"If it is profitable, there is a future for this kind of joint venture," said Perrin Long, a veteran brokerage analyst at First of Michigan Corp. in Detroit.

Mr. Long said that such ventures are mutually beneficial because they allow banks to profit even as tens of millions of deposits flow out of accounts. Meanwhile, brokerages get a chance to learn more about risk-averse bank customers.

Others see joint ventures as the lesser of two evils, saying that mergers would result in a clash of cultures.

"If a big bank were to buy my firm, I can't see many of the top people staying around," said a midwestern regional brokerage executive. "Banks are not accustomed to the pay for performance that we have. Besides, working for a bank would be boring."

Mutual Threats

Clearly, though, banks are very much on the minds of securities executives. A recent poll of brokerage chief executives found that 62% listed commercial banks as their greatest competition. Not surprisingly, many bankers see brokerages the same way.

There is good reason. Brokerages have increasingly edged into traditional bank lines of business, providing investments and lending to small business, for example. They are not content to stop there.

Some executives want to lend to individuals who now use home equity. loans or credit lines. Their alternative: margin loans that already total nearly $40 billion annually.

Margin loans, which are collateralized against the securities the loans purchase, can be authorized quickly. The rates for these loans are as much as 3% below bank rates.

Ready Source of Collateral

That may only be the beginning. One Wall Street executive said investors keep untold billions of dollars of stocks and bonds in safety - deposit boxes that could be used as ready collateral.

"That's a lot of money sitting there collecting dust," he said. "I think every firm on the Street would loan on the value of that collateral in a minute."

For now, securities firms are focused on competing with all financial intermediaries. In a keynote address here, Joesph Plumeri, president of Smith Barney Shearson Inc., one the nation's largest brokerages, said the industry has focused for too long on getting new clients, with little effort at retention.

Service Culture Lacking

He said that must change, and that brokerages should place a stronger emphasis on service. "We do a terrible job in the relationship business, because we have a culture of newness, of getting new clients all the time," he said.

Part of the problem: firm-hopping brokers, 60% of whom.have worked at more than one firm. "You can't service clients if you are spending that much time in a moving van," Mr. Plumeri pointed out.

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