Have banks missed out on another chance to feast at the mutual fund merger banquet?

That's what some industry experts were wondering in the wake of Tuesday's announcement that two leading fund companies are merging.

The acquisition of Benham Management International by Twentieth Century Cos. will create a $37 billion-asset fund company, placing it 16th among all fund companies and fifth among those that specialize in no-load mutual funds.

Financial details of the deal were not disclosed. The merger is expected to close by June.

Banks have expressed strong interest in acquiring mutual fund management companies, but they have sealed only three such deals in the past year. The most notable was Mellon Bank Corp.'s acquisition of Dreyfus Corp., the nation's sixth-largest mutual fund company.

Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a mutual fund consultant in Rhode Island, said banks are making a mistake by sitting on the sidelines, because prices on fund companies are coming down.

"By the time banks will be ready, there might not be properties around," he said.

Mr. Bobroff said banks appear to be reluctant to enter the bidding because the decline in bank stock prices has made it tougher for them to finance fund company acquisitions.

Fund company owners generally like stock-swap transactions, because taxes can be avoided on deals structured this way, according to investment bankers who have worked on fund company transactions. But bank share prices are well below last year's levels, making fund company owners less willing to accept such deals.

Indeed, Benham didn't even entertain bids from banks, though some came calling after a Wall Street Journal article last year suggested that the company was looking for a buyer, said James M. Benham, president of the Mountain View, Calif.-based fund company. He declined to name any of the banks that contacted him.

Bankers, however, said the Twentieth Century-Benham merger isn't a good gauge of their ability to participate in the mergers-and-acquisition scene.

"This sounds like a sweetheart deal," said B. Randolph Bateman, senior vice president and chief investment officer of Star Banc Corp., Cincinnati. He noted that the merger partners are both privately held, family-run firms. "Most banks would probably view a load company as more attractive."

Even so, he acknowledged that the large no-load company will be a force to reckon with in the increasingly competitive mutual fund industry.

"The more consolidation occurs away from banks, the less chance there will be for banks to be competitive," Mr. Bateman said.

No-load funds like those sold by Twentieth Century and Benham provide consumers with a distinctly different choice than broker-sold funds like those typically offered by banks.

That's because no-load funds are sold directly to consumers, typically by mail and by telephone. Banks and other purveyors of broker-sold funds usually emphasize that they offer service in exchange for the fees they charge on sales.

James E. Stowers 3d, president of Kansas City, Mo.-based Twentieth Century, said the acquisition of Benham will give his company a competitive edge.

In part, that's because Benham will fill in a big gap in Twentieth Century's product line.

Benham has 90% of its $11 billion of assets in fixed-income funds. Twentieth Century, meanwhile, has 91% of its $26 billion of assets in stock funds.

Mr. Stowers said the deal lays the groundwork for further growth.

"Our goal is to have between $80 billion and $100 billion in assets by the year 2000," he said, adding that even $10 billion in assets is not enough to survive and be profitable.

"There would appear to be some critical mass," said Jon Teall, a spokesman with Lipper Analytical Services, a Summit, N.J., mutual fund research firm. "The combined company will be strong," he said, and it will be able "to expand over a large base."

Mr. Benham acknowledged that banks have added to the competition his company has recently felt. "The bank entry, along with that of insurance companies, has changed the competitive balance of our industry," he said.

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