Though bank sales of investments may have dipped last year, bank sales involving third-party marketers rose, a consultant says.

Annuities fueled the rise.

All but one of the 18 firms that responded to a survey by Kenneth Kehrer Associates of Princeton, N.J., reported higher bank sales of investment products, including mutual funds and annuities.

Third-party marketers provide investment products and brokerage services to banks that are too small to own a broker-dealer or choose not to. Some also provide products and sales support to larger banks that run their own brokerages.

Preliminary results of another survey show total investment product sales through bank channels down 4% last year, said Kenneth Kehrer, who conducted both surveys.

Many third-party marketers sell more annuities, which may account for the discrepancy, Mr. Kehrer said. Growth in the number of banks choosing to sell through third parties also helped, he said.

IFC Holdings Inc. of Tampa, Fla., was the top seller of investment products through banks for the second year in a row.

IFC, which is owned by Birmingham, Ala.-based Amsouth Bancorp, provides brokerage services to more than 450 bank clients through its operating units Invest Financial Corp. and Investment Centers of America. IFC's sales increased 6%, to almost $3 billion.

Independent Financial Marketing Group Inc. of Purchase, N.Y., and Essex Corp. of New York finished second and third, respectively, for the second year in a row. Independent Financial, which has 56 bank clients, increased sales 10% ,to $2.7 billion. Sales by Essex, with about 120 bank clients, grew by 20%, to $2.4 billion.

Independent Financial, a subsidiary of Boston-based Liberty Financial Cos., was the top distributor of variable annuities through banks, while Essex was the top distributor of fixed annuities.

Fourth-ranked Bankmark of Morris Plains, N.J., had the biggest increase in investment product sales through banks, at 96%, going to $2.1 billion.

Bankmark picked up new business when its client Star Banc Corp. of Cincinnati merged with Milwaukee-based Firstar Corp. in late 1998, said chief operating officer Jonathan Gabriel. In addition, "most of our clients are licensing additional people and motivating branch brokers to distribute more products," Mr. Gabriel said.

Bankmark, which has about 50 bank clients, is a subsidiary of Conseco Inc. of Carmel, Ind.

PFIC Corp., which is owned by Memphis-based Union Planters Corp., had the second-largest increase in sales - 64%, to over $1 billion, putting it in ninth place. PFIC provides brokerage services for about 50 banks, including Union Planters.

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