Like a rising tide that lifts all boats, the surging stock market has caused a boomlet in the once sleepy business of equity unit investment trusts.

Investors last year socked $36 billion into the mutual fund-like products, compared with less than $500 million in 1990. Assets in equity unit trusts grew tenfold over that period.

The brisk sales of equity unit trusts contrast sharply with the shrinking demand for fixed-income unit trusts, which have had to contend throughout the 1990s with both low interest rates and investors' preference for stocks.

Since adding equity unit trusts to its fixed-income investment product offerings a month ago, BankAmerica Corp.'s retail brokerage has seen unit trust sales increase 200%, said Kelsey Ashford, vice president and national marketing manager.

"We've just seen the growth explode," she said. "We've seen it growing exponentially each week."

Unit trusts differ from mutual funds in that they buy a limited number of securities, usually not more than a dozen, and hold them until a specified date.

That limits tax consequences that come with buying and selling stocks within a fund. Investors also like knowing exactly which stocks they own through the trust, which is often a mystery with mutual funds.

Costs of investing in unit trusts are far lower than for buying shares of a dozen companies independently, and the management fees are lower than for many mutual funds.

Unit trusts are not everyone's cup of tea, however. Unlike mutual fund investors, those with unit trusts can't track their performance in the stock pages each day, and Morningstar-type ratings are not available.

Furthermore, unit trust investors can't let their money ride indefinitely. When the trusts mature, investors must pay the capital gains taxes and decide what to do with the money.

Still, equity unit trusts' increasing popularity has been a boon to the companies that sell them, such as John Nuveen Co.. The demand has helped revive Nuveen's sales through banks after fixed-income unit trusts fell out of favor.

The Chicago-based company introduced its first equity unit trust midway through last year and now has four. Nuveen expects the equity unit trusts, along with a handful of new equity mutual funds, to boost its bank sales to $1 billion this year, from $650 million in 1997.

For all its growth, the unit trust business is dwarfed by the mutual fund industry. In all of 1997 combined sales of equity and fixed-income unit trusts were $38.5 billion. By comparison, sales of equity mutual fund shares were $30.5 billion last month alone.

And though the mutual fund industry has $5 trillion of assets under management, unit trust assets amounted to a mere $86 billion at the end of 1997.

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