In this paper we consider a class of second-order elliptic operators which includes atomic-type N-body operators for N > 2. Our concern is the problem of predicting the existence of only a finite number of bound states corresponding to eigenvalues below the essential spectrum. We obtain a criterion which is natural for the problem and easy to apply as is demonstrated with various examples. While the criterion applies to general second-order elliptic operators, sharp results are obtained when the Hamiltonian of an atom with an infinitely heavy nucleus of charge Z and N electrons of charge 1 and mass 1/2 is considered. © 1990 American Mathematical Society.