To crack the mutual fund market in Europe, you need to be a bank robber, of sorts.

For years, the consumer market for mutual funds in Europe has been jealously guarded by its banks, which continue to dominate fund sales. In Germany, for example, 80 to 85 percent of all mutual fund sales are conducted through banks. And, the top 10 promoters of funds in Europe - which are mostly banks - control 90 percent of the market. By comparison, the top 10 mutual fund companies in the United States control only about 50 percent of mutual fund assets, according to Douglas Adams, director of administrative operations in Edinborough, Scotland for Templeton Funds.

But there are signs of breaking of the bank dominance, according to recent numbers released by Sector Analysis, a London-based consulting firm. Those numbers show that sales of proprietary funds dropped from 83 percent of all fund sales through banks in 1998 to 77 percent in 1999. That is still far from the diversity of the U.S. market where bank proprietary funds account for only 33 percent of all sales, but industry executives see the decline as a promising sign for their overseas prospects.

"I think there is a trend there," said Christian Yates, sales group head for Chase Global Asset Management & Mutual Funds in London. "It's developing because some things are opening markets in Europe - diversification, spread of equity culture, introduction of the Euro and falling interest rates."

As in the United States, European workers are beginning to worry about their retirement income since many of them appear ill prepared for their retirements. An annual survey released at the end of last year by NatWest said that only one out of four workers in the UK was saving enough for retirement.

Workers' concerns about retirement are beginning to heighten their interest in investment products, Yates said.

"People are beginning to look at equity funds where they never looked at them before and they're looking for them outside their bank, which has traditionally been the provider of all their financial services," he said.

"As people begin to look for performance, they'll start to move away from bank funds," said Antony Yadgaroff, group managing director for the Allenbridge Group in London. "Like the U.S., bank funds usually don't perform as well as other funds."

In the UK, some banks have recognized their shortcomings in the funds area and attempted to bolster their business there by buying a mutual fund company, as NatWest did when it bought Gartmore in 1996, he said. Alternatively, they have bought an interest in a mutual fund firm, as the Bank of Scotland did when it bought 30 percent of Newton Management Limited.

Overall, though, poor performance and high charges will be the undoing of the proprietary bank funds, Yadgaroff said.

"Now investors can get so much research and look at performance so easily by using the Internet," he said. "I think that's made a lot of difference."

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