Citicorp, which has harnessed the power of its brand name for products ranging from credit cards to checking accounts, is now taking aim at mutual funds.
In a sharp reversal, the banking giant in mid-June plans to unveil a trio of funds dubbed CitiSelect. Till now, Citicorp has relied largely on the mutual funds of outside companies like Fidelity Investments and Putnam Mutual Funds.
The planned funds, a senior executive said, would invest in a mix of stocks, bonds, and money market instruments that would be shifted periodically as market conditions change. Such portfolios, known as asset- allocation funds, have been extremely popular with consumers who want a low-fuss way of diversifying their investments.
Brand-name marketing has long been central to Citicorp's consumer strategy, and observers said its mutual fund drive would likely benefit from the "halo effect"' of such market successes as its "Not just Visa, Citibank Visa" campaign.
"It brings the image and the reputation of the whole organization to that product area," said W. Christopher Maxwell, chief executive KeyCorp Mutual Fund Advisers Inc.
Unlike most big banks, Citicorp has placed relatively little emphasis on proprietary funds.
Citicorp's Landmark Funds, with $5.8 billion of assets as of March 31, ranked only 21st among bank-managed mutual fund families, according to Lipper Analytical Services, Summit, N.J. And most of that - $5 billion - was in money market mutual funds, not the stock and bond funds that are viewed as the engine for growth at most mutual fund companies.
"A lot of people don't know the Landmark Funds are managed by Citicorp," Mr. Maxwell said.
The CitiSelect offerings will carry a commission fee, or a "load." Citi also is looking into developing low-load and no-load versions for sales through other Citicorp distribution channels, such as the private bank.
To prepare for the launch of the funds, Citicorp has been holding a series of briefings for its corps of bank-based brokers. The funds will be marketed through the banking company's retail brokerage subsidiary, headed by Dennis Madigan, said a source who is familiar with Citi's plans.
Citicorp won't be shouldering the investment-selection duties all by itself, this source said. The CitiSelect funds will have multiple managers - Citi's own, plus a handful from the dozens of fund companies whose products are sold through the brokerage.
"One of the weaknesses banks have is they don't have a record of individual performance that is promotable," said the source. But Citicorp has done a good job screening top-performing funds for sale through its brokerage, and it wants to build on that reputation. "Citi has a record it thinks is unique," the source said.
The naming of bank-managed funds was a nettlesome issue in the early 1990s, when banks were first entering the mutual fund business. But the tension has eased as regulators have come to grips with the policy and disclosure issues surrounding bank-fund sales.
"It's pretty much a nonissue at the moment," said Melanie Fein, a partner in the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter.
The five federal banking regulators, in their inter-agency statement on bank investment product sales, have said that bank-managed funds cannot use a name that is identical to that of the bank or its affiliates, noted Donald W. Smith, a partner with the Washington law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart.
"To the extent the name is similar, some regulatory agencies might give the bank sales procedures a little closer scrutiny to make sure consumers realize the product is not a bank deposit," Mr. Smith said.
Ms. Fein said banks have come to grips with the rules governing the naming of funds and have done a good job complying with regulations because brand identification means a lot to their business.
"Name recognition is very important in the consumer products area," Ms. Fein said. "Banks want to be seen in the customers' mind as offering a full menu of products and services."