The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. has joined the growing ranks of traditional insurance companies being given authorization to establish thrift subsidiaries.

The $154 billion-asset insurer said it would set up a unit, Hartford Bank, through which it plans to offer trust services for individuals and institutions. Hartford Financial deals in a variety of life and property and casualty insurance services for individuals and corporations.

Even before the passage of last year's federal financial reform bill, the nation's insurers were searching for more leeway to compete with other financial services companies, and thrift charters emerged during the late 1990s as a favorite approach.

Thrift powers bring additional distribution capabilities, reducing insurers' reliance on expensive networks of agents, and they let companies keep their options open, analysts said. The powers "also give insurers the flexibility to set things up for future moves," said Michael Cohen, an analyst at A.M. Best Co. in Oldwick, N.J.

The Office of Thrift Supervision in Washington has approved thrift charters for 29 insurance companies since it began tracking applications and approvals in late 1997, according to a spokesman. Late last year, American International Group Inc., the nation's largest publicly traded insurer, won approval to set up a Delaware-based trust company. And Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. got approval in November.

Hartford, like AIG and Massachusetts Mutual, said it does not plan to use its new charter to begin selling traditional bank deposit accounts. Instead, it said that it will use the new distribution channel to increase sales of its existing investment products.

For example, trust products for individuals are to be offered in connection with sales of annuity and mutual fund products through broker-dealers, financial planners, and Hartford's own corps of trust and estate planning experts, according to the company's charter application.

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