In a development that could ease regulatory pressures on banks in the mutual fund business, two federal agencies reported Monday that bank customers generally know as much about investing as people who bought funds elsewhere.
The long-awaited study by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Securities and Exchange Commission found that bank and nonbank customers alike have grasped the key difference between investing and saving: mutual funds, unlike deposits, can lose money.
To be sure, the agencies concluded, there are still many gaps in investors' knowledge, particularly when it comes to understanding fees and differentiating between insured and uninsured money market instruments.
But on the whole, the study deflates the conventional wisdom that bank customers are unusually naive about investments.
"There isn't a problem that is unique to banking," said an official at the Comptroller's Office who briefed reporters on the findings. Rather, he said, the study points to a need for the entire mutual fund industry to step up customer education efforts.
Scrutiny of banks' investment sales practices intensified greatly in November 1993, when the SEC issued a survey pointing to widespread confusion among bank customers.
That survey was swiftly discounted as too narrow, and hastily conceived. But the new survey, based on in-depth interviews with 2,000 mutual fund investors, is being taken very seriously.
Bankers said they felt vindicated by the findings, which are expected to be the centerpiece of a congressional hearing Wednesday.
"The idea that bank customers are less knowledgeable about risk is blown out of the water," said Joseph D. Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association.
Unlike much-publicized mystery shopping surveys, the SEC-OCC effort is the first comprehensive examination of what mutual fund investors know rather than what they were told.
Sources said it clearly adds momentum to SEC efforts to simplify the mutual fund disclosure document known as the prospectus. The study showed that while investors consulted the prospectus more than any other document, they rated it only the fifth-best source of information.
"All of the research ... tends to suggest that mutual fund investors are operating off a relatively high knowledge base," said Paul Schott Stevens, senior vice president and general counsel at the Investment Company Institute. "But a number of specific steps suggest themselves - in particular, designing disclosure documents that more people will read and use."
In the central findings of the study, 94% of investors said they understood that stock funds could lose money; 72% said they knew that bond funds could lose money; and 64% grasped that money market mutual funds could lose money.
But investors haven't learned all their lessons yet. For instance, the study showed that fewer than one in six investors knew that high expenses can depress fund returns. And one-third of surveyed investors thought money market funds are insured, with a quarter of those believing that the FDIC stands behind the funds. Again, however, the study found no meaningful differences between bank and nonbank customers on these points.
"The study shows that there is still effort needed, but that the effort really needs to be across the industry and not limited to bank-affiliated broker-dealers," said Dennis Hensley, managing director at J.P. Morgan & Co.
Mr. Hensley, chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers committee that is mulling over the SEC's bank broker-dealer rules, is among those scheduled to testify at Wednesday's hearing by the House Banking subcommittee on capital markets, securities, and government-sponsored enterprises.
Several industry observers said the survey results indicate that bankers are on the right track in explaining investments.
"I wish it were better and banking is working hard in that regard," said James McLaughlin, director of regulatory and trust affairs at the American Bankers Association. "But the efforts on the part of banks and others are starting to bear fruit."
Olaf de Senerpont Domis in Washington contributed to this report.