A group representing 17 large banks will study how participants in 401(k) plans decide what to do with distributions.

A survey by the Bank Retirement Plan Coalition will look at where participants squirrel away the distributions they do not promptly spend and why they make the choices they do.

"If you understand why people make the decisions that they make, you're in a position to address those issues," said Paul Kampner, the founder of the coalition. Mr. Kampner is president of the Chicago consulting firm TMark Associates Ltd.

The two-year-old coalition meets three times a year to address employee benefits issues. Its goal is to help banks compete better against mutual fund firms and insurance companies, which in recent years have boosted 401(k) assets at the expense of banks.

Mr. Kampner said the idea behind the group was that "it made sense for banks to pool resources" against nonbanks.

Banks administered 21% of 401(k) assets at the end of last year, according to a study by Spectrem Group, a San Francisco research and consulting firm. That placed them behind mutual fund companies, with 42%, and insurance companies, with 22%.

"By working together, (banks) can promote the industry and themselves at the same time, and they can do it in a cost-effective manner," Mr. Kampner said.

The specifics of the survey will be ironed out at a meeting in Phoenix in January, Mr. Kampner said. Members also plan to discuss how proposals by the Labor Department could affect how banks handle small 401(k) plans.

The department is considering a rule that would require a company that acts as its own trustee and has fewer than 100 participants in its 401(k) plan to hire an independent auditor. That could be a boon for banks, which often serve as trustees.

"The agenda is driven by current activities in the marketplace," Mr. Kampner said.

At previous meetings the group has discussed issues such as investor education, trading initiatives, fiduciary standards, and regulations.

"You're able to get together in a pretty open environment to talk about the issues that we have with competitors," said Ben E. Yeakley, a vice president and manager of strategic planning for First Union National Bank's institutional services.

The Charlotte, N.C., bank administers $40 billion of defined- contribution assets, which includes 401(k) plans.

"In order to be best in class, you have to know what other players are doing," Mr. Yeakley said.

Most banks in the group administer assets for companies with 200 to 5,000 employees, Mr. Kampner said. Other members include Amsouth Bank, Bank of Oklahoma, Bank One, Harris Bank, Fifth Third Bank, and First Tennessee Bank.

Banks wishing to join the group must be approved by members. Six were invited to join for 1999, Mr. Kampner said, but would not identify them.

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