In a move that underscores U.S. banks' growing interest in equity purchases either for their own accounts or as fund managers, an investment unit of Bankers Trust New York Corp. is acquiring a minority stake in one of Australia's largest media companies.

A Bankers Trust spokesman in New York was unable to say how much the unit plans to pay for its 14.99% stake in John Fairfax Holdings Ltd.

The bank manages about $9 billion of retail funds in Australia and $13 billion of institutional money.

Among the other banks that have given high priority to equity investments either as fund managers or as a source of added revenue are J.P. Morgan & Co., Citicorp, First Chicago NBD Corp., BankAmerica Corp., and Bank of Boston Corp. In addition, NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp. are seeking to expand such investments.

Analysts noted that, like other money-center banks, Bankers Trust has been steadily increasing domestic and international equity investments as part of a shift away from traditional lending.

Last year, the New York City-based bank set aside $500 million for investments in foreign companies, in tranches of $5 million to $25 million. Under the Bank Holding Company Act, banks can acquire up to 20% of the voting stock in a company and up to 40% of its overall equity.

U.S. banks originally began acquiring equity stakes in other companies in the 1950s, but such investments remained limited until the late 1980s. That's when banks began boosting their holdings amid a quick rise in the stock market and growing interest in privately held companies that were going public.

Analysts added that equity investments at big banks now constitute an increasingly important, albeit volatile, component of earnings.

"Gains tend to come in lumps," observed David Berry, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. in New York. "It's a significant business for a small number of banks."

Steven Galante, editor of Private Equity Analysts, a Wellesley, Mass.- based newsletter that tracks equity investors, said banks are continuing to accelerate the pace of their investments in equity.

He noted that although the primary motivation is profit on increases in stock prices equity investments also frequently serve as an entry ticket into other business lines.

"It brings in lending and other bank-client business," Mr. Galante observed.

Even if equity-related income is volatile, Mr. Galante added, "banks have found that returns on their direct investments have been higher than the overall return on their banking activities."

A study done a year ago by the newsletter found that commercial banks had earned an average annual return of 26% on their investments since 1980.

Analysts also noted that banks have been increasingly looking for direct equity investments overseas, especially in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Bank of Boston's equity investment arm, BancBoston Capital, for example, recent pumped $16.5 million into a German management buyout fund sponsored by MeesPierson NV, a Dutch merchant bank, and BHF Bank, a German merchant bank.

Second-quarter income from equity investments at seven of the biggest banks in the business totaled $733 million, down only slightly from the $759 million earned in the same quarter last year.

However, testifying to the volatility of such earnings, results varied widely at different institutions.

Income from equity investments rose more than fivefold at Bankers Trust during the second quarter, to $72 million, from $13 million last year. At First Chicago NBD, it increased more than 40%, to $85 million. At Bank of Boston, it more than tripled, to $75 million, while at Chase Manhattan Corp., it increased 23%, to $223 million.

However, equity profits fell 10% at J.P. Morgan, to $118 million, and 43%, after adjustments for accounting, at Citicorp, to $107 million.

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