Banks sold $27.8 billion in total insurance premiums last year, and people in the industry say they have only just begun.

The Association of Banks-in-Insurance, which came up with that estimate, also said 68% of U.S. banks sell insurance products other than annuities, and another 5% plan to do so within a year.

Insurance fills bankers' bill for fees and diversification, and the optimism seems to be independent of economic conditions.

"We see it as a growth business," said George C. Eshelman, executive vice president in charge of investments for Comerica Inc. of Detroit. He said bank insurance businesses should be growing at double-digit rates for the next five to seven years.

Mr. Eshelman said Comerica has been doing well selling life insurance to the upscale market and sees a life-wholesaling initiative putting it out ahead of another trend.

Meanwhile, the downward spiral of commercial property and casualty premiums is beginning to stabilize, which Mr. Eshelman said will bolster efforts in that area.

Peoples Bank of Bridgeport, Conn., is bearing down on the relatively new long-term health care market, where the delivery methods are not as established as with other types of insurance, said Barbara P. Johnson, senior vice president and manager insurance services.

Because baby boomers who face the problem of caring for elderly parents are already bank customers, "we are the perfect delivery channel for long- term care insurance," she said.

Ms. Johnson said banks' insurance future lies in product innovation, and she expects to see from insurance companies a wave of new, bank-tailored products.

"We don't even know what these products are yet," she said.

Chase Manhattan Corp. provides a glimpse at what a more mature bank insurance program can look like.

At close to five years in the business, Chase's after-tax insurance profits are approaching $100 million, a point at which they are considered an important contributor to the overall bottom line, said Dennis R. Kosovac, chief executive officer of Chase Insurance Agency.

At Comerica, which also has an established and respected program, Mr. Eshelman said insurance will always be an important niche. In five years, insurance sales could contribute 3% to 5% of total revenue, he said.

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