John Hancock Funds will distribute capital gains early for several of its mutual funds this year, to give investors an edge at tax time.

Other fund companies will probably follow suit as they jockey to attract clients, industry watchers said.

Last week Hancock issued estimates of the gains it will distribute for nine of its stock funds, and said it will make the distributions in November. Typically the company gives estimates in November and makes the distributions in December.

Moving things up should help investors. Once they have an idea of what they will owe in capital gains taxes, they can try to alleviate their tax burden by making portfolio changes.

For instance, they can redeem mutual funds that have lost money this year and declare the loss as a tax writeoff. Or they can sell shares of a fund before distributions are made.

Smart investors do that every year, but 1998 has been particularly difficult, and more be will looking for every advantage they can get. They may even find themselves receiving taxable distributions from mutual funds that lost money.

"This gives them more time to plan," said Sue Bishop, a spokeswoman for Hancock.

Geoffrey H. Bobroff, a consultant in East Greenwich, R.I., said Hancock is showing the kind of investor-friendly approach that will be important as competition grows and market conditions prompt investors to reassess where they should put their money.

"I think everybody is trying to be more accommodative," Mr. Bobroff said.

Oakmark Funds and Clipper Funds are among the other fund companies that have moved up their capital gains distribution dates.

But there is also good reason to wait until the last minute to announce distributions estimates. For one thing, announcing early might prompt investors to sell.

Hancock manages $33 billion in its 36 mutual funds and other investment products. It moved up the distribution dates for the nine funds in particular because their fiscal year ended Oct. 31, ahead the complex's other funds, Ms. Bishop said.

The company, which is based in Boston, sold $150 million of funds through banks last year, mostly through 50 institutions.

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