Who says banks are nothing but copycats when it comes to mutual funds?

One of the most-lauded mutual fund innovations of 1994 came not from a traditional fund company, but from Wells Fargo & Co., San Francisco.

The LifePath Funds, which the $52 billion-asset banking company unveiled in March, are designed to keep pace with consumers' financial needs over periods as long as five decades.

Put simply, the funds are a new twist on asset-allocation products. Customers are matched with any of six portfolios, depending on their risk tolerance and how soon they expect to need the money.

The mix of stocks, bonds, and money market instruments in each portfolio grows less volatile as investors near retirement age.

"I don't know of another product like this," said Joy Montgomery, president of Money Marketing Initiatives, Morristown, N.J. "They're meeting customers' needs in a simple way."

Wells Fargo designed the funds to offer consumers a simple way for investors to tackle the often-daunting challenge of retirement planning, said Donald Luskin, a managing director with Wells Fargo Nikko Investment Advisors.

"It's not easy to figure out how to be an expert investor," said Mr. Luskin, who oversees the unit's defined contribution plan group. "Our products are designed to help remove guesswork."

The investment advisory unit, which manages the funds, is a partnership between Wells Fargo and Nikko Securities Co.

WFNIA, as the unit is known, pioneered index-fund investment strategies and now manages more than 100 of these offerings, including the LifePath Funds.

In just six months, the LifePath Funds have attracted $170 million in retail sales through Wells Fargo branches, Mr. Luskin said.

Corporate customers are flocking to the funds, too, he added. Twelve companies have made the LifePath Funds part of their 401(k) plans for employees, and another dozen or so are close to signing on.

"We're very happy with the progress," Mr. Luskin said. "This is a brand new idea with no track record, and it's been a very tough year in a down market."

The LifePath Funds are only the newest orb in a galaxy of investment products managed by Wells Fargo and its affiliates.

The company's mutual fund assets under management totaled $8.2 billion at midyear, according to Lipper Analytical Services, Summit, N.J.

Wells Fargo's product lines include the Stagecoach Funds for retail investors and the Overland Express Funds for institutional investors. While these proprietary funds account for the lion's share of Wells Fargo's fund sales, the bank also offers its retail customers mutual funds managed by Franklin Resources, San Mateo, Calif.

Structured retirement plans, like corporatesponsored 401(k) programs, represent a customer group that Wells Fargo very much wants to reach.

Such plans, which held less than $500 billion in assets in 1993, are expected to swell to $1 trillion by 1998, according to Access Research, a consulting firm in Windsor, Conn. They are rapidly supplanting traditional defined-benefit pension plans.

"Gone are the days when a company will give you a gold watch and a good pension for however long you live," Mr. Luskin said. "Today, individuals are responsible for their retirement planning decisions."

The LifePath Funds are designed to make it easy to sort through choices.

Five of the funds are tailored for investors who expect to begin drawing on their investments in the years 2000, 2010, 2020, 2030, and 2040, respectively. The sixth LifePath Fund is a cash reserve, or money-market, offering.

Investors might select the LifePath 2000 or the 2010 to save for their children's college costs, while choosing the LifePath 2020, 2030 or 2040 to prepare for their own retirement.

The LifePath Funds are invested in securities whose performance tracks various stock and bond barometers, or "indexes," like the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index. "Individuals will have their risk automatically managed," Mr. Luskin said.

All told, Wells culls from 14 asset classes, ranging from international equities to long-term bonds to spread LifePath investments over a broad range of offerings.

Wells Fargo divvies the funds among different customer segments by using a master-feeder, or "Hub-and-Spoke" approach. Each fund is culled from a single pool of assets, or hub, and each spoke is tailored and priced for individual groups.

The approach, in its entirety, does offer a fresh take on retirement planning.

Wells Fargo is already considering ways to keep LifePath fresh, and is looking at several next-generation products.

The company, in 2000, will roll-out LifePath 2050, and make additions each subsequent decade.

Wells also wants to use LifePath as the foundation for a "post-retirement" push.

The new product, which has yet to be named, would take LifePath assets upon payout and reinvest them in another investment program.

This would meet the need of retirees who want their money easily accessible and receiving a decent return, Mr. Luskin said. "It's a challenge because there really is nothing out there."

And to firm its footing in the defined-contribution plan market, Wells Fargo plans in January to merge Mr. Luskin's unit, which manages $15 billion in assets, with Wells Fargo Bank's MasterWorks unit. This arm provides money management and administrative services to corporate clients.

The combo, to be called Wells Fargo Defined Contribution Trust Co., will place Wells among the top managers of defined contribution assets, with $20 billion under management.

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