Halfway through November, bankers are reporting that customers are still skittish about putting their money in longer-term investments.
With few exceptions, sales of mutual funds and annuities have been flat for most bank brokerages, according to a mid-month spot check by the American Banker.
Shorter term instruments and certificates of deposit seem to be the flavors of the month for consumers who have adopted a "wait and see" attitude about where the economy and markets are headed.
"The perception of the economy is that it's slowing down, neither moving one way or another," said Thomas H. Ficquette, head of marketing for Central Carolina Bank and Trust Co., Durham, N.C.
Following a sluggish October, sales of investment products remain slow this month at the $3.4 billion-asset bank, which sells mutual funds and annuities through its brokerage subsidiary, CCB Investments. Mr. Ficquette declined to release sales figures but said he's not hopeful there will be a revival this year.
Mr. Ficquette said the bank's conservative customers have been putting their money in tax-free municipal bonds and short-term money market funds, in order to have "flexibility and liquidity in their investments."
The same is true for customers at Indiana's Monroe County Bank. Investors at the Bloomington-based community bank prefer short-term U.S. Treasuries over riskier mutual funds.
"I see a hesitancy from people because of the volatility in the markets," said Heather Cherichella, an investment adviser for Monroe County's investment products marketer, the Ohio Company. "They are looking at the shorter term and parking their money there."
Lawrence E. Harb, president of Lasalle Consultants in River Forest, Ill., said most bank customers are still "scared of the equity markets" and are taking advantage of the relative safety and higher interest rates of CDs and fixed annuities.
He has a simple answer for the phenomenon.
"I think most customers are still not sold on the idea of volatility," Mr. Harb said.
First National Bank of the Hudson Valley, LaGrangeville, N.Y., has seen that trend firsthand and is now pumping more of its resources into marketing insured deposit products.
"We're putting more emphasis on our certificates of deposit with the expectation that rates are going up," said John C. Van Wormer, president of the $630 million-asset bank.
Lately, First National's customers have been attracted to one-year and two-year CDs, but Mr. Van Wormer said that consumers now seem more willing to look at longer-term traditional products.
And with interest rates expected to climb a few more notches, Mr. Van Wormer says, First National "would rather lock our people in at these rates" than have to dish out higher dividends to customers later.
Some banks are still having success at selling mutual funds and annuities.
Premier Bancorp, in Baton Rouge, La., is anticipating about $7 million of sales this month. About half of that should come from annuities, said Richard S. White Jr., executive vice president at Premier.
"Annuities are still a strong seller for us, as they have been all year," Mr. White said.
On the mutual fund side, sales have been soft but "the tide has definitely turned," he said, adding that Premier's customers are inexplicably bucking the trend and investing in riskier equity funds.
He expects sales of both variable and fixed-rate annuities to be strong well into next year and said the $4 billion-asset banking company even has plans to unveil a proprietary variable annuity in early January.
The variable annuity will be introduced under the banner of Paragon, Premier's proprietary mutual fund family. The bank is working with its investment products marketer, Seattle-based GNA Corp., to develop the product.