Wells Fargo & Co. has received regulatory approval to add backend loads' to several of its Stagecoach mutual funds, becoming the latest in a string of banks to offer the deferred-payment option.

The arrangement allows customers to put off payment of sales commissions, and perhaps sidestep them altogether, depending on how long they hold the investments.

The San Francisco banking company is adding the payment option to an asset allocation fund, a California tax-free fund, a diversified income fund, a Ginnie Mae fund, a growth and income fund, and a U.S. government securities fund, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Wells Fargo is positioning the loads as alternatives to up-front fees that investors have been charged since the funds were rolled out in December 1991. The banking company has one of the broadest retail programs, offering the funds through 200 securities salespeople that cover 600 branches in California.

"We want to give our customers. a variety of options," a spokeswoman said of the decision to add back-end loads. The structure "is popular with investors," she added.

In Wells Fargo's case, the backend fees start at 3% of assets if investments are Cashed in Within one year of purchase. The rate scales down to zero after four years. The spokeswoman declined to disclose when Wells Fargo will begin offering the back-end option, or how the banking company will finance the commissions that must be advanced to-brokers.

Industry observers speculate that Stephens Inc., the funds' distributor, will probably be involved in financing the brokers' compensation.

Wells Fargo's back-end charges are low, but not unusually So, said one industry observer. "It's in line with other bond funds out there," said Mary McAvity, a consultant at Cerulli Associates, Boston.

Still, the back-end fees represent a lower payment option than the 4.5% of assets Wells Fargo charges as up-front fees for five of the funds. The sixth fund, the California tax-free offering, charges a 3% up-front load.

Investors who purchase the back-end load shares will still have to pay annual service fees, known as 12b-1 fees, equal to 0.70% of assets.

In offering back-end loads, Wells Fargo joins such banks as First Union, Keycorp, and First Commerce Corp., which have added the payment option or disclosed plans to do so.

First Commerce Corp., based in New Orleans, was one of the first out of the gate, adding back end loads to its Marquis Funds last October. The bank has been "very pleased" with the results, said Clifton J. Saik, senior vice president in charge of mutual funds. First Commerce has sold about $15 million of back-end load funds, purchases that "would have gone to outside funds," Mr. Saik said.

How Back-end Loads Work

Based on a hypothetical $10,000 investment

* Customer Invests $10,000 in a mutual fund, but chooses to defer payment of sales charge.

* An annual servicing fee, known as a 12b-1 fee, is levied against the balance. At 0.70%, it comes to $70 a year.

* If the customer withdraws money from the fund within one year, a 3% back-end load is charged.

* If the customer holds the fund at least four years, no load is charged, but the 12b-1 fee continues.

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