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Variable Annuity Outlook Hinges on Market Upturn


Variable annuity sales sank in 2008 as the stock market's swoon scared investors off.

As a result, insurers are raising prices and adding restrictions on the products. But sales of variable annuities should rebound once the stock market does, according to experts.

"The market will cure you quicker than anything," said Nancy Creedon, a principal with Deloitte & Touche.

Industrywide, variable annuity sales fell 21% from $48 billion in the fourth quarter of 2007 to $38 billion in the third quarter of 2008, according to the trade group Limra International. On the bank front, the Kehrer-Jackson Monthly Bank Annuity Sales Survey found that respondents sold $2.3 billion of variable annuities in October 2007 but just $1.3 billion, or 43% less, in September 2008.

Variable annuity sales had soared in recent years by promising guaranteed income to throngs of Baby Boomers. Along the way, insurers waged a veritable arms race of guarantees in order to gain market share, said Matt Wion, senior actuarial adviser with Ernst & Young's insurance and actuarial advisory services practice.

But as the stock market's turmoil wore on in 2008, insurance companies began scaling back benefits and raising prices. One reason, experts say, was concern that losses on the annuities' underlying investments would prevent the insurers from following through on the guarantees within the products and their riders. Another was the rising cost of hedging programs that serve as buffers against losses.

Companies, including Axa Equitable Life Insurance and ING North America Insurance Corp., have increased fees and narrowed customers' choices for the underlying investments for products with guaranteed minimum-income benefits. Others have announced plans to redesign products.

Such changes seem to be an "admission that these things were too good," said Paul Sylvester, senior vice president for annuities at MetLife.

MetLife's third-quarter variable annuity sales through banks fell 9.4% from a year earlier, to $499 million. It will increase rider fees and raise certain age requirements for benefits with new customers, Sylvester said.

Still, there is reason to believe that Baby Boomers, humbled by the market's plunge, will pay up for the promise of guaranteed income, according to Kenneth Kehrer, the director of Kehrer-Limra in Princeton, N.J. "The perceptions of the value of the VA features has been enhanced because of the severe market downturn," Kehrer said. "The fact that they now cost more than they used to may not impact sales."

Sylvester agreed. "I believe these benefits are real, and there's a reason why they have a price to them," he said.

Fixed annuity sales, meanwhile, have taken off. In September 2007, according to the Kehrer-Jackson report, fixed and variable sales were similar­-the banks sold $1.8 billion worth of fixed and $1.9 billion worth of variable annuities. But by September 2008, sales of fixed annuities had surged to $2.9 billion, and sales of variables had dipped to $1.3 billion.

Consumers have turned to fixed annuities as an alternative to certificates of deposit, whose interest rates have been less appealing.

Insurance carriers' issues have not been a major drag on annuity sales, Creedon said. One reason is that states' insurance funds would cover most investors in the event of a carrier's inability to honor its contracts, she said.

National Insurance Corp., an independent broker/dealer with 500 registered representatives in 24 states, is among the distributors that are confident in their insurance company product providers, said Alan Lipson, National Insurance's president. "We use just the A-plus-rated carriers," he said. "We're not going to back away. The insurance companies should have a good year."

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