Banks posted solid gains last year in the amount of employee benefit assets they invested on behalf of clients.

Data recently released by banking regulators showed that banks managed $914 billion of employee benefit assets in trust accounts last year, nearly a fifth greater than 1992.

This was taken as encouraging news by some observers, even though some of the gain is attributable to market performance and to acquisitions of money managers.

"What it says to me is that banks are doing quite well," said Robert T. Johnson, chairman of the trust and investment management division of the American Bankers Association.

Mr. Johnson is also executive vice president in Phoenix of Banc One Corp.'s Arizona bank.

The data was disclosed in the Trust Assets of Financial Institutions report for 1993, which was released last month by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, an umbrella group of federal banking regulators.

The report tallies trust assets which banks invest for clients, trust assets banks safeguard but don't manage, and assets invested by bank-affiliated investment advisers.

The data clearly show that banks are major players in the investment business. For example, they exercised discretion over a total of $2.05 trillion of trust assets, up 14% from 1992.

This outstripped the approximately $2 trillion in mutual funds managed by nonbanks and rivaled the $3.84 trillion of assets - namely loans and securities - that federally insured banks own.

The employee benefit assets contain some $525 billion of so-called employee benefit trusts, which include individual retirement accounts and Keogh plans.

The assets also contained $389 billion of so-called employee benefit agencies, which include pension plans registered under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

The growth in employee benefit assets outstripped gains in every other type of trust asset over which banks had investment discretion.

For example, discretionary personal trusts grew 5%, to $556 billion. Estates managed by banks grew 1%, to $19.4 billion.

But a catch-all category of discreti0nary trust assets called "all other agencies" nearly matched the growth in employee benefits. Assets in this category grew 17%, to $560 billion.

Regulators said they weren't certain what was included in this area, but they believe it includes individual and institutional investment accounts for which bank trust departments are given investment control and fiduciary responsibility. Mutual funds managed by bank trust departments are also included in this category.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the data was that collective investment funds posted sizable growth, despite the numerous conversions of these funds into mutual funds.

Collective investment funds are pools of assets held in trust for a diverse group of beneficiaries that can include individuals as well as institutions.

Many banks have been restructuring these assets as mutual funds because doing so enables them to market the investments to non-trust customers.

But despite expectations that collective investment funds would dwindle, they actually grew in assets by nearly a quarter, to $702 billion.

Most of the increase was attributable to a $112 billion rise in employee benefit assets, to $531 billion. Personal trust assets in collective investment funds grew $15 billion to $152 billion.

"That surprises me," said Mr. Johnson about the growth, which he attributed to banks' overall push to get clients into investment accounts.

But, in what is probably a reflection of the conversion trend, the number of institutions offering collective investment funds declined, to 486 in 1993, from 533 in 1992.

The largest collective investment fund operator was Wells Fargo and Co. The San Francisco banking company's Institutional Trust Co. had 209 of these funds with $164 billion of assets. Wells Fargo Bank had another 51 funds with $8.4 billion of assets.

State Street Bank and Trust Co. and Bankers Trust Co. were also powerhouses. with $83.6 billion, and $65.9 billion in collective investment funds, respectively.

The data also shed light on banks' affiliated investment advisers. Banks are not required to have these subsidiaries.

But many do, because they can be seen in the market as more aggressive and forward-thinking investment managers than bank trust departments, according to market experts.

The 96 bank-affiliated investment advisers last year managed $515 billion of trust assets, and another $519 billion of assets not in trust accounts. The non-trust assets included mutual fund portfolios managed by affiliated advisers.

But the affiliated adviser data is skewed by the inclusion of mutual fund companies that own banks.

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