As investors continue to pour money into stock mutual funds, some bank brokerage executives are starting to voice concern that bond funds are getting short shrift.
"The mutual fund industry as a whole is seeing a record inflow of cash into equities, not a broad diversification. That could be dangerous," said Robert Flowers, president of BankAmerica Corp.'s brokerage unit.
To be sure, Mr. Flowers is pleased that bank brokerage clients - long devotees of bond investing - have added stock funds to the mix. But he warned that brokers need to make sure customers don't take on more risk than they are comfortable having.
Right now, investors are clearly enamored of stock funds. They pumped $24.5 billion in fresh dollars into these funds in January, versus just $3 billion into bond funds, according to preliminary estimates by the Investment Company Institute.
Net new cash flows into stock funds grew fivefold in the past 12 months, the data show.
The shift toward stock funds has been quite pronounced at many banks.
"Last year wasn't really a good year for bond funds. Lately we've just been doing more equity sales," said Elizabeth Fisher, president of the brokerage unit at Union Bank, Los Angeles.
Nor does she buy the popular notion that bank customers are simply too risk-averse to venture far into stock funds.
"I don't think there's a different buying behavior at banks than say Merrill Lynch & Co., no matter what we tell each other," she said.
But some banks report that customers are edging back toward bond funds.
"A lot of folks have made lots of money in equities and are getting nervous. They're reallocating into bond funds to protect their profits," said Nancy Graves, senior vice president and director of retail banking at Mark Twain Bancshares, St. Louis.
Taxable bonds, not municipals, are getting most of the business, she added. That's in line with the institute's preliminary findings.
Ms. Graves said her brokers are offering more alternatives than bond funds as they counsel customers on how to protect themselves against a possible correction in the domestic stock market.
For one thing, she said, customers are being urged to consider adding a 5% to 7% stake in international mutual funds. The institute found that flows to international funds "strengthened significantly" in January, marking a three-month trend.
At BA Investment Services - one of the nation's largest bank brokerages - Mr. Flowers' strategy has been to "change the direction to a much more needs-based relationship approach." He said the company's mutual fund sales hit a record in January, but declined to disclose the volume or the product mix.
However, he said, "We've turned upscale and we've walked away from the product focus. And our product mix has gotten far healthier."
Perhaps the best mirror of the sales scene at banks comes from mutual fund companies that cater to a broad spectrum of banks. Most still report that stock funds, while growing, haven't totally eclipsed bond funds at banks.
At New York-based Oppenheimer Management Corp., which gets 16.5% of its business from 150 bank clients, stock funds account for 55% of sales through banks.
Through other sales channels, such as brokerage firms and financial planners, stock funds make up closer to 65% of volume, said Maryann Bruce, a senior vice president who manages sales through banks.
Ms. Bruce said the company sees growing interest in its stock funds, particularly the Main Street Income and Growth Fund. She said she doesn't expect a surge in bond fund sales anytime soon.
"You have three things working against banks and bond funds: a hot stock market, some concern over a flat tax, and yields coming down," Ms. Bruce said.
Oppenheimer's January sales through banks were up 28.5% from December, and up 300% from January 1995, she said.