Bank brokers found themselves working harder last year to pull in revenue as they handled a higher volume of transactions that were worth less on average than in prior years.

That was among the findings of a survey conducted for the Consumer Bankers Association, an Arlington, Va., trade group.

The study measured investment sales performance at 67 banks, which accounted for 46% of all bank investment sales in 1996. In all, the nation's banks sold $39 billion worth of mutual funds and annuities last year, according to Kenneth Kehrer, a Princeton, N.J., consultant who did the survey.

The survey also found that revenue from bank investment programs increased modestly from 1995, customer complaints were low, and mutual funds gained in popularity at the expense of fixed annuities.

At least one industry expert interpreted the smaller average size of transactions as bad news for banks.

"It would suggest that banks have never really penetrated the market sufficiently to attract the more affluent investors and are simply doing business with an eroding base of customers," said Burton J. Greenwald, a Philadelphia-based mutual fund consultant.

The challenge for banks is to develop the sort of entrepreneurial sales and marketing cultures that have brought success to their nonbank rivals, he said.

Philip Tasho, chief executive of Rimco, the asset management arm of Riggs National Corp., Washington, said banks seem to be conscious that they need new sources of investor business.

Recent acquisitions of investment banks and mutual funds-NationsBank Corp. buying Montgomery Securities; BankAmerica buying Robertson Stephens; and First Union Corp. buying Keystone-apparently support that idea.

"If the average ticket size has drifted downward," Mr. Tasho said, "maybe they've noticed it and are taking action to correct it."

But Mr. Kehrer found some encouraging signs in the results.

Brokers' pay is increasing. The average payout was 34% of commissions, up from 29% in 1995. Productivity was up as well because brokers handled more tickets, he said.

Historically, banks have had lower productivity and paid brokers less than nonbank firms.

"In the past year, productivity improved a lot," Mr. Kehrer said. "Along the way banks paid out a higher proportion of commissions to brokers than they did in the past, and margins shrank a little. They look like they're becoming more like nonbank firms."

Revenue from bank investment programs, measured against retail deposits, was up a modest 8% from 1995 but was up 48% compared with 1994.

Customer complaints fell. The average number of written customer complaints in 1996 was 5.8 for every 10,000 investment transactions, down from 9 in 1995 and the lowest since 1993, the first year the survey measured.

Complaints might range from relatively minor problems like a customer's name being misspelled to more serious ones, like a representative's failure to disclose that investments are not federally insured.

These more important complaints, called sales practices complaints, occurred 2.4 times for every 10,000 transactions. Past years' statistics for sales practices complaints could not be obtained.

One factor contributing to the decline in gripes was the hot stock market, Mr. Kehrer said. "People don't tend to complain when the stock market goes up," he said.

Conversely, the complaint ratio was 14.2 per 10,000 transactions in 1994, a year the bond market had a downturn.

During 1996, mutual funds accounted for 38% of revenue in bank consumer investment programs, up from 33% the previous year, the study found.

Fixed annuity sales, meanwhile, dropped from 40% of the investment mix in 1995 to 30% in 1996. Variable annuities accounted for 16%, and stock and bond sales for 13%.

The survey also found that broker turnover fell to 18% in 1996, from 21% in 1995. That's the lowest level since 1993.

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