Hartford Life, which built itself into the top seller of annuities through banks with single investment manager products, expects to strengthen its position with the introduction of a multimanager variable annuity.

The insurer, a unit of Hartford Financial Services, announced Monday that its new annuity will include funds from American Funds, MFS Investment Management, and Franklin Templeton Group.

Though Hartford's 1998 annuity sales through banks were nearly twice that of its two closest competitors combined, Nationwide Financial Services has been chipping away at that lead with its Best of America multimanager annuities, according to Kenneth Kehrer of Kenneth Kehrer Associates, a Princeton, N.J.-based consulting firm. "I think this will go toward heading that off," he said. "But Nationwide has a good position with the leading multimanager product."

Nationwide's closest competitor in multimanager products has been American Skandia of Shelton, Conn., Mr. Kehrer said.

"Admittedly there is great acceptance for the multimanager approach in the marketplace today," said Bruce Ferris, Hartford assistant vice president for the bank channel.

And Hartford didn't take the multimanager playing field too late, he said. Rather, the annuity will offer a new twist in what he termed a "focused multimanager" approach-just three families but many fund offerings.

While Nationwide was increasing multimanager sales, Hartford's contractual obligations with longtime partner Putnam Financial forced it to offer only single-manager variable annuities.

However, last week Hartford and Putnam announced they had agreed to eliminate the exclusivity restrictions. Hartford will continue, however, to market the successful Hartford Director and Putnam Hartford Capital Manager products. "When we decided to modify our relationship with Putnam we did it not because of what our competitors were doing. We did it for what was right for us and our consumers," said Joe Fazzino, a spokesman for Hartford.

At the same time that Hartford announced its new multimanager annuity, Putnam announced that it was teaming up with Allstate Insurance Co. on a new annuity. (See page 13.)

"The key to this product is that it gives us an opportunity to offer something different to our customers - and that includes the bank channel," Mr. Fazzino said. "The same product isn't the right thing for everybody."

The new, unnamed variable annuity will offer 25 investment options from American Funds, Franklin Templeton Group, and MFS Investment Management. Mr. Fazzino would not discuss any agreements with the three funds regarding exclusivity except to say the three families are top names in the business.

The new annuity will be available by the third quarter and be marketed by a new unit of Hartford's Planco subsidiary. "It'll give these wholesalers the opportunity to really focus on the new product and it won't be a matter of the wholesalers working one product off against another," Mr. Fazzino said.

Hartford is also the top annuity seller overall in the United States. Its 1998 sales were $9.9 billion, making it the top U.S. seller for the fifth consecutive year, according to Variable Annuity Research Data Services of Marietta, Ga.

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