As financial services companies scramble to offer their wares on-line, few products are getting as much attention as mutual funds.
Software providers like Intuit and established brokers like Charles Schwab are building entire strategies around investment services for the growing wired population.
The trend gives bankers with their feet in both the electronic services and mutual fund camps an opportunity to provide - or participate in - a more full-service financial offering to clients.
Block Financial Corp. last month announced an alliance with DST Systems Inc. to provide investors with mutual fund account information on the World Wide Web. Through its Conductor financial "supersite" announced in August, Block Financial plans to offer home banking, bill payment, and the ability to move money between funds.
Intuit Inc., the leader in personal financial software, last month completed its acquisition of Galt Technologies Inc., which has an elaborate Internet site, Networth, with information and prices on more than 60 mutual fund families. Networth is now available through Intuit's Web facility, Quicken Financial Network.
Intuit is now seeking alliances with major mutual fund companies to begin offering on-line investing next spring - six months before it expects to offer banking over the Web.
Later this month a Boston start-up, Vertigo Development Group, is expected to announce the launch of a financial planning and advising service. If the power of the Web can be properly harnessed, company officials said, banks can win back some of the market share they have been losing to nonbanks.
"We think banks will want customers to be able to get access to mutual funds," said William P. Anderson, president of Kansas City, Mo.-based Block Financial. "It will cause (customers) to concentrate more of their activity on the Web site, and that is a big asset to the bank."
Block Financial's Conductor will also feature personalized news, weather, and stock quotes from Reuters subsidiary Reality Online Inc. Its Kansas City, Mo.-based partner DST Systems, which also has a relationship with Intuit, services more than 39 million shareholder accounts in the mutual fund industry.
Because Block Financial is marketing Conductor to community banks that want to avoid the costs of developing their own Web sites, participating institutions can choose what their customers see when they log on. The customers of one bank would be blocked from seeing an offer from another, but banks might want to give their users access to third-party mutual funds.
Some observers see an on-line repeat of the alliance dances between banks and mutual fund providers in the early 1990s. Banking Web sites could become popular gathering places on the Internet and a conduit to other offerings.
With the electronic evolution of mutual funds and discount brokerage, "there is a lot of 'coopetition' happening," said Charles Schwab spokesman Tom Taggert. "No firm should look only to companies within their industry."
"If I walk into a bank lobby and see a bank financial adviser sitting at a desk, there comes the moment when he needs to ask himself if he is losing me by offering a mutual fund," said Rob Rosen, president of Vertigo. "But the news is very good for banks. Even if I choose (Fidelity's) Magellan Fund, he keeps the customer and the bank has the relationship."
Though they may have to battle various new financial "channels" such as those of America Online and Compuserve, banks have the opportunity to blend transactional capabilities with financial advice and solidify their customer relationships.
"There are many varieties of beer, and they all have a unique taste," said Mr. Rosen. "Just as a loyal group of customers gets attracted to each one, a bank can develop a personal relationship with a customer" that can't easily by copied by a competitor.