Michael Price's mutual fund shop at Franklin Resources Inc. has launched a portfolio specializing in securities of financial services companies.

The Mutual Financial Services Fund, which opened Tuesday, is the sixth fund run by Mr. Price, an influential asset manager best known in banking circles for having forced the sale of Chase Manhattan Corp.

The fund, which emphasizes capital appreciation, will invest in commercial banks, thrifts, credit card companies, brokerage firms, finance companies, investment advisers, insurance companies, and subprime lenders, the San Mateo, Calif.-based company said.

Financial services funds have been growing rapidly this year as strong performance in the sector has fueled investor interest.

Thirteen portfolios have been introduced so far this year, boosting the total to 30, according to Lipper Analytical Services in Summit, N.J. Assets in financial services funds soared to $13.4 billion as of July 31, up from $5.1 billion in July 1996 and $3 billion in July 1995.

The new fund, advised by the company's Franklin Mutual Advisers unit, is managed by a five-person team that includes Mr. Price, Ray Garea, Peter Langerman, Jeff Altman, and Larry Sondike.

"Our value-driven approach is to use bottom-up, fundamental research to find opportunities others may overlook," Mr. Garea, senior vice president of Franklin Mutual, said in a statement. "We spend a considerable amount of time looking at financial services companies because we think this industry will continue to grow."

In addition to purchasing common and preferred stock, the fund is authorized under its statement of investment objectives to purchase debt and convertible securities.

SAN FRANCISCO-Bank of the West said Wednesday it has signed a definitive agreement to buy Essex Credit Corp., a boat-loan specialist in Essex, Conn.

Terms of the deal, slated to close in the third quarter, were not disclosed. Essex originated $285 million in loans last year.

Bank of the West, a unit of Banque Nationale de Paris Group, has $5.4 billion of assets.

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