Fifth Third Bancorp is getting into relatively uncharted territory for a bank: running unit investment trusts.
Last week the Cincinnati banking company launched its first proprietary unit trust with the help of Ohio Co., the Cleveland brokerage firm it bought in June.
The Fifth Third/The Ohio Co. Strategic Communications and Technology Trust invests in a fixed basket of 44 stocks spanning a variety of technology and communications industries.
Unit trusts are similar to mutual funds in that they are portfolios of securities. But unlike mutual funds, unit trusts generally contain only a few securities-usually around 15-and they have a fixed maturity date.
One of the benefits of unit trusts is that they are "illuminated portfolios," meaning there is no mystery about the portfolio's holdings, said Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a mutual fund analyst based in East Greenwich, R.I. The downside is that the portfolio is not managed, he said.
Fifth Third has the benefit of an experienced partner. Ohio Co. has been involved in the business since the early 1990s and has 16 portfolios representing $300 million on its books.
"The unit trust is half a step toward building an individual (stock) portfolio," said G. Douglas Voelz, a vice president and national syndicate manager, Fifth Third/The Ohio Co.
Mr. Voelz said the portfolio lets clients with as little as $1,000 to invest take a stake in a particular sector without taking the risk of buying just one stock. He said the company was not dissuaded from the launch by recent volatility in the stock market. In fact, he said, "We were more excited about bringing it now because prices of stocks were 25% cheaper."
The firm has done a road show to educate brokers from Fifth Third Securities, who have never sold such a product before. Fifth Third/The Ohio Co. includes brokers from the former Ohio Co.
Few banks have ventured into the field; Unionbancal Corp. in San Francisco, mostly owned by Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd., is one. A reason for banks' absence may be that brokers get only so much time to sell a unit trust. Fifth Third will allow 90 to 180 days, Mr. Voelz said.
"Typical bank customers and the typical bank broker are not driven by time-related sales," Mr. Bobroff said. The short time and the pressure to sell can force brokers to push harder, raising suitability questions, he said.