First Chicago Corp. has joined a handful of banking companies that offer special brokerage accounts to diversify assets among a sampling of mutual funds.

These services, known as wrap accounts, have been offered by brokerage firms for years but became hot sellers last year.

First Chicago, a $72.4 billion-asset banking company, is the first bank to offer a wrap account in the Chicago area. Other banking companies offering such accounts include PNC Bank Corp., Pittsburgh, and Wells Fargo & Co., San Francisco.

"Asset allocation accounts are increasing in popularity as investors try to figure out the best way to raise their returns," said Eli Neusner, a consultant at Cerulli Associates, Boston.

Initially, First Chicago's wrap account, called Investment Architect, will use only the 14 portfolios of the bank's proprietary Prairie Funds. The fund family was launched in February with a conversion of trust accounts and now has about $3 billion of assets.

The asset allocation service "opens these funds up to our retail customers," said William T. Norris, product manager for the Investment Architect account.

Asset allocation accounts can be more profitable than other types of account, said Richard A. Davies. He is a managing director of First Chicago Investment Management Co., the subsidiary that is managing the account. "If you perform well, the assets are more stable" than in regular mutual fund accounts, he said.

Since launching the service May 15, First Chicago has signed up 60 customers, Mr. Norris said. The account seems to be attracting an "emerging affluent" customer, he said - men and women in their 20s or 30s, with a higher net worth than the bank had expected.

So far, the average account size is $200,000 to $300,000, Mr. Norris said. He declined to specify the asset total that had come into the account.

Investment Architect is designed for accounts of $50,000 and more, and it can be used for IRAs. Mutual fund sales loads are waived, but investors pay an annual fee of 1% of assets for the first $100,000 invested. That fee percentage tapers off for larger investments so that an investor who opens an account with more than $500,000 pays just 0.25%.

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