GNA Corp., a top annuity company that has emphasized selling its wares through banks, is striking out in a new direction.

The Seattle-based unit of General Electric Capital Corp. said last week that it has agreed to purchase American Express Life Assurance Co., a specialist in long-term-care insurance.

Terms of the deal, which is expected to close in the fourth quarter, were not disclosed. One analyst estimated the transaction's value at $200 million.

If completed, the deal would give GNA control of one of the leading companies in a fast-growing field. Sales of long-term-care policies, which pay for nursing home care, have grown at an annual clip of 27% since 1987, according to the Health Insurance Association of America.

Amex Life, a unit of American Express Co., is one of a handful of companies with a strong presence in the long-term-care business.

Last year, the $1.6 billion-asset insurer booked $337 million in premiums from long-term-care policies. Other insurance products - including long-term disability coverage for group plans - brought in premiums of $123 million.

The company's annual earnings range from 4% to 5% of assets, or $64 million to $80 million, said Steven Dreyer, director of Standard & Poor's Institutional Ratings Group.

In a prepared statement, GNA's top executive painted the acquisition in glowing terms.

"We are excited about this acquisition, which will propel GNA into a position of leadership in the rapidly growing long-term care market," said Patrick Welch, president and chief executive.

"Amex Life will expand our distribution capabilities and provide attractive products to complement our current mix of life insurance and annuities and mutual funds," Mr. Welch added.

But one observer said the new products probably won't hold much appeal for GNA's bank clients.

"To my knowledge, there aren't a lot of banks in the general insurance area, and there isn't a lot of clamor to have unique insurance products," said Geoffrey Bobroff, a consultant in East Greenwich, R.I.

Indeed, he said, it doubtful whether GNA would target the new offerings to banks. A GNA spokeswoman declined to comment, and Mr. Welch could not be reached.

Like other companies that specialize in marketing investment products through banks, GNA is coming off a tough year.

GNA's sales of fixed annuities soared in 1994, but its total investment product sales through banks plummeted 53% to $1.57 billion, largely because of a sharp drop in mutual fund volume, according to Kenneth Kehrer Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.

While company officials have said GNA remains firmly committed to the bank channel, they have also made clear that GNA wants to expand in other distribution channels as well.

A spokesman for American Express Co. said the life insurance unit was placed on the block as part of a plan to refocus on core businesses - notably financial planning, credit cards, and travel-related services.

American Express Financial Advisors, the financial planning arm, will continue to sell the insurance company's long-term-care policies, the spokesman added.

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