Wells Fargo & Co. this month is joining the handful of companies offering brokerage accounts that diversify assets among a range of mutual funds.
Such asset-allocation services, known as mutual fund wrap accounts, have been around for more than a decade, but became hot sellers just last year.
Wrap accounts now are available from more than a dozen companies, including Merrill Lynch & Co., Smith Barney, and brokerage affiliates of Vermont's Chittenden Bank, Pittsburgh's PNC Bank Corp., and the California thrift Great Western Financial Corp., according to Cerulli Associates Inc., a Boston consulting firm.
Assets in these accounts grew by nearly 50% last year, to $12.3 billion, according to Cerulli.
Mary McAvity, a consultant with Cerulli, said that Wells' introduction of a wrap account was a smart move, given the product's growing popularity.
"We think it is a very good strategic move," she said.
She added, however, that wrap accounts are difficult to launch because the computer and trade-execution systems can be complicated to run and can cost $1 million to $2 million to build.
Cerulli is not an uninterested party. It advises companies on investment marketing strategies, and counts Wells as one of its biggest clients.
But Kenneth R. Hoffman, president of the consulting firm Optima Group Inc. in Milford, Conn., agreed that Wells was wise to start selling mutual fund wrap accounts through the retail brokers that work in its branch network.
He added that at least 10 other banks are planning to make similar launches, or to sell mutual fund wrap accounts managed by other firms, such as Fidelity Investments.
Mr. Hoffman noted that banks have sold mutual fund wrap accounts through their trust departments for years. But they have not fared well through this outlet, he said.
One reason is that mutual fund wrap accounts are not as attractive to wealthy trust clients as they are to the typical retail brokerage customer.
Mr. Hoffman also said it is harder to devise effective sales strategies for trust officers than for brokers because of the complex rules governing trust relationships.
According to a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, the banking company's new wrap account is called the Portfolio Advisor.
She said the account allows customers to automatically allocate investments among a range of mutual funds, including some managed by Wells Fargo and some managed by other companies, including Fidelity.
She declined to go into more detail, but a Wells Fargo customer service representative said that the fund families offered include Wells' Stagecoach and Overland Express families, Fidelity's Advisor family, the Quest for Value Funds, the Phoenix funds, and the Templeton funds. The minimum investment is $10,000.
While mutual fund sales loads are waived, investors pay an annual fee of 0.95% of assets for investments up to $100,000, 0.75% for between $100,000 and $250,000 of assets, and 0.6% for larger investments.
The Portfolio Advisor is Wells' second retail mutual fund product aimed at diversification and long-term savings. Early last year the company introduced an innovative mutual fund family, called the LifePath funds, that offers different portfolios for different investing time horizons.
Wells is reputed to be one of the most effective banks at selling its own mutual funds. But Mr. Hoffman said that including other companies' mutual funds in the wrap account will make it much more attractive to investors.