As annuities gain a following among their customers, bankers are searching for insurance industry partners that offer not only good products but also extensive support services.

In choosing among the host of annuities available, banks weigh such criteria as product features, pricing, and training support from annuity company representatives.

"If someone wants to do business with us, the product they offer has to appeal to our customers and then we look at the support services the company brings to the table," said Anthony Psilos, president of the brokerage subsidiary at Hibernia Corp., New Orleans.

Mr. Psilos first looks at product features - the most important of which is the size of the early withdrawal penalty, which can turn off customers who may later want to get out of the investment.

He also wants annuity companies with sales representatives to help run seminars and train brokers to sell these tax-deferred investment vehicles.

Annuities, which are tax-deferred investments, fund customers' retirement, so picking the right ones can be more crucial even than mutual funds, which are more liquid, said Kenneth Kehrer, a consultant in Princeton, N.J.

"There's more at stake with annuities because you're tying up money for several years," he said.

But banks are frustrated by some insurance companies that will guarantee a fixed rate to annuities customers for only a year, then dramatically change the rate.

Customers who bought fixed annuities for an established interest rate are often horrified to discover such changes, in the form of what the insurance industry calls a "renewal rate."

"It's difficult to figure out historically which companies have had fair renewal rates," Mr. Kehrer said.

Aegon USA, one of the leading sellers of annuities through banks, is trying to teach bank brokers to explain to customers why these rates change.

"Customers have got to understand what affects their renewal rate, just to be better informed as to whether they should buy annuities," said William Busler, president of Aegon's financial markets division.

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