United Asset Management, a fast-growing acquirer of money management firms, reported Wednesday a net loss of $75.4 million for the fourth quarter, versus a $34.5 million gain one year earlier.

The loss reflects a previously announced noncash charge of $171 million against the recorded cost of client contracts at two UAM affiliates, Heitman Financial Ltd. and Newbold's Asset Management Inc. Excluding the charge, UAM posted income of $23.9 million for the fourth quarter.

For 1997, UAM reported a net loss of $4.1 million, compared with net income of $97.8 million in 1996.

"Although 1997 was a challenging year for UAM, we made significant progress in a number of important areas," said Norton H. Reamer, UAM's president and chief executive officer, in a statement. "Since the end of 1996, we have added nine firms, including five foreign affiliates of which two were start-ups, and one firm which was acquired for an existing UAM affiliate."

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