Faced with upheaval and consolidation among thrift and banking companies, notably Washington Mutual Inc. and Wachovia Corp., insurance carriers are working to assure bank customers that their annuity investments are safe.
The distribution arm of Axa Financial Inc., for example, has been teaming with bank financial advisers to meet with small groups of clients and review everything from the strength of the bank to the features of the variable annuities they hold to the outlook for the capital markets.
The goal at Axa, a New York unit of Axa Group of Paris, is "at least getting clients to stay the course," said Michael McCarthy, senior vice president and national sales manager of Axa Distributors' financial institution channel.
New York Life Insurance Co.'s outreach efforts have included reassuring bank partners of the company's soundness, including its negligible exposure to risky investments, said Andy Reiss, New York Life's national sales manager.
As they try to put customers and distribution partners at ease, insurance companies and investment providers will also have to jockey for position on big banks' distribution platforms, said Kenneth Kehrer, the director of Kehrer-Limra, a research and consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.
The Wachovia and Washington Mutual moves — Wells Fargo & Co. has agreed to buy Wachovia, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. has bought Wamu's banking operations — undoubtedly mean that the financial services' companies rosters of insurance and investment providers will be consolidated. And the megabanks that are emerging from the industry's turmoil will have more bargaining power over product providers, Mr. Kehrer said.
"If you are not on their shelves, it might make a big dent in your sales," he said. "Consequently, you are probably going to be willing to do more to get on the shelves."
The Wachovia and Washington Mutual deals are a major event for insurers and investment providers that distribute through banks. The Charlotte banking company and the Seattle thrift company are among the top five in sales of annuities and mutual funds, Mr. Kehrer said.
Axa and New York Life said they are confident they will stay in the mix. At New York Life, "we fully expect to continue doing business with" Wachovia "in some shape or form," Mr. Reiss said. JPMorgan Chase, he said, is "one of our best partners in the bank channel. Now that Wamu is being purchased by Chase, we hope to be doing business with Wamu through Chase."
Mr. McCarthy, who called Wachovia one of Axa's biggest accounts, said Axa had been in talks to join Washington Mutual's platform in 2009. But Axa also distributes through JPMorgan Chase, and Mr. McCarthy said he sees an opportunity to boost sales through the New York banking company.
Mr. Kehrer said he does not expect the Wachovia and Wamu investment programs to be gutted. JPMorgan Chase, for example, will probably close only the Wamu branches that overlap with its own, he said.
"That will impact" brokerage sales "somewhat, but not in a huge way," Mr. Kehrer said.
Whether investment advisers in banks can continue to attract business as effectively as they once did remains to be seen, Mr. Kehrer said. "The advisers working in banks have benefited from the halo of the bank," he said. "Clearly, now a lot people's confidence in banks will be shaken."
A lack of confidence in the markets, meanwhile, has crimped sales of variable annuities, which are the focus of Axa's bank sales efforts. The company's bank sales for 2008 will probably fall short of its 2007 total of $2.5 billion, Mr. McCarthy acknowledged.
"I don't think it's any secret that the bank channel gravitated toward fixed annuities and away from variable annuities in 2008," he said.
September was New York Life's best month ever for fixed annuity sales through banks, Mr. Reiss said.
He declined to give a bank sales projection for 2008 but said he expects "sales will continue to grow."
One area to keep an eye on will be banks' commitment to their investment programs. More than ever, banks need fee income to compensate for reduced spread income, Mr. Kehrer said. "We see some banks that are now much more interested in supporting their investment sales programs because of that."