In a bid for expanded insurance powers, bankers are brandishing a study that asserts the traditional means of delivery - independent agents - falls woefully short of meeting consumers' needs.

The shortfall, estimated at $5 trillion dollars of coverage, is particularly acute among lower- and middle-income consumers, said the report released Wednesday by the Financial Institutions Insurance Association.

Less affluent customers are ignored in favor of wealthy clients who can afford high premiums that fuel agents' commissions, said the Corte Madera, Calif., trade group.

The report lands in the middle of a battlefield that pits banks against independent agents who have maintained vigorous lobbying efforts.

Banks, inspired by their move into mutual funds and annuities, are now looking eagerly at life insurance to round out investment offerings.

Clearly, they see a big opportunity. "Most everyone needs life insurance," said Michael White, the association's president and author of the study. "Unfortunately, consumers' needs are not being met," he added. "Banks can help fill the gap."

Mr. White spent three months preparing the 50-page study that the association's executives and its bank members carried this week to meetings with aides to congressional banking committees.

The survey, which cites independent research and data from several insurance trade groups, will also be distributed to all members of the banking committees and to state and federal insurance regulators.

Key findings include:

* Twenty-two percent of households and 40% of all consumers have no life insurance.

* Policies are heavily skewed toward consumers with incomes of $75,000 or more.

* Sales through agents are declining; 33% of policies were sold this way in 1992, down from 56% in 1960.

Insurance agents were quick to respond, calling the study ill-conceived and off the mark.

The bank association "is sadly mistaken" if it believes banks are better than agents at serving insurance needs, said Allan G. Hancock, president of the National Association of Life Underwriters, a trade group for insurance agents.

The bank association's members are also misrepresenting themselves as consumer advocates, Mr. Hancock said.

Banks "are not so much interested in serving the public as in increasing their profits," he said.

Still, the bank association has high hopes for the impact of its study, believing it can convince legislators that insurance sales should be included in laws aimed at broadening banks' powers.

"Congress will find it hard to justify the narrow interests of a few agent trade associations when millions of Americans don't have life insurance," Mr. White said.

Action by Congress could temper or erase the limits that many states have placed on insurance sales by banks, Mr. White said.

Right now, 21 states give banks broad authority to sell life insurance, while 11 others allow limited activity. Most other states have bans or conditions that make sales nearly impossible, the association said.

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