Despite assertions to the contrary, bankers have Considerable legal clout.to make life insurance a prime retail investment product, said Michael White, president of the Financial Institutions Insurance Association.

"Bank insurance powers are far more widely distributed than our opponents pretend and agitate for," Mr. White told a record gathering of 325 bankers and insurance industry representatives at the association's fall conference in San Francisco.

Mr. White cited results of a survey by the association that showed many states allow banks to operate insurance agencies, and even more let banks sell life insurance through marketing companies.

Mr. White urged bankers to let the association know when trouble is brewing on the state level so the organization can muster its legal and lobbying forces.

The association is also building its presence in Washington, to counter challenges by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, DN.Y., and Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich. FIIA chairman Richard Starr referred to the legislators, the "3-D effect."

The conference served as an opportunity for the association to announce that founding executive director James Shelton was passing the reins to Alice Berreyesa.

Ms. Berreyesa has been with the five-year-old association almost since its inception, most recently as administrative director.

Mr. Starr indicated that Mr. Shelton, who owns the management company that organizes the group's conferences, wanted to formally separate the two operations.

Mr. Starr also said the association's growth made it practical to have a full-time executive director.

Mr. Shelton will remain a director of the association and will also continue as executive director of the Bank Securities Association, the insurance group's sister organization, Mr. Starr said.

As banks sell more annuities and life insurance, the industry must create a central clearing agency to process and settle purchases, said Brian Johnson, vice president of systems and operations at CoreLink Resources, Concord, Calif.

The proposed entity would replace the current practice of banks primarily clearing purchases through each insurance company with which they deal.

Mr. Johnson suggested that the Financial Institutions Insurance Association oversee creation of the central clearing system.

But the association demurred, at least for now.

The proposal warrants study before any kind of capital outlays could be considered, Mr. Starr said.

"After all, we're not talking about something on the scale of a laptop computer," he said.

Merlin Gackle, president of Invest Financial Corp., told bankers that life insurance would play an integral role at the company in 1995.

And Mr. Gackle certainly seemed eager to reinforce his knowledge of the insurance business: He was spotted later in the day picking up pointers at a presentation by Laughlin Group of Companies.

The topic: how banks can choose insurance companies to work with.

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