Who's on top in the variable annuities business? That depends on whom you ask.

Hartford Life Insurance of Simsbury, Conn., long the top underwriter as ranked by total sales, says it deserves the accolades. But American Skandia of Shelton, Conn., challenging Hartford, says it leads by another measure distribution.

The dispute, triggered by a Sept. 9 press release from Skandia, shows how rivalries are intensifying as the annuities business heats up. Second-quarter sales of variable annuities totaled $31 billion, the strongest quarter yet, according to Variable Annuity Research and Data Service, Marietta, Ga.

"There's a tremendous amount of competition at these top levels today, and everybody's looking for an edge," said Rick Carey, president of VARDS.

The quarrel between Hartford and Skandia boils down to semantics. The two companies are taking decidedly different approaches to measuring volume.

Hartford leads by the conventional measure: sales of all variable annuities it underwrites, regardless of who does the selling or whose name is on the product. This figure is measured by premiums collected on contracts issued, and it includes insurance "wrappers" that underwriters provide for annuity investments marketed by unaffiliated companies, such as mutual fund companies. Hartford, for instance, provides wrappers for Putnam Investments' variable annuities.

By this standard, Hartford placed first with sales of $5.3 billion in the second quarter, ahead of TIAA-CREF ($4.5 billion) and Skandia ($3.2 billion), according to VARDS. Skandia does not dispute this.

Skandia says it leads in distribution: wholesale marketing of its proprietary variable annuities. By this measure, Skandia says, it sold $1.798 billion in the second quarter, edging out Hartford's proprietary distribution arm, Planco, which sold $1.775 billion.

Skandia's claims raised some hackles at Hartford. Spokesman David Potter called the press release "spurious," and he said he phoned Skandia representatives to complain. The problem, he said, is that "they compare their total sales to one of our divisions."

Skandia officials, meanwhile, defended the validity of the distribution measure. The standard sales measure based on the volume of annuities underwritten masks the powerful push that some companies have made as wholesalers, said Kurt Mansfield, marketing manager for variable annuities.

"We really want to tout this. We think it's huge," Mr. Mansfield said. "One of the things we've really tried to focus on at American Skandia is one point of contact."

Some of Hartford's products are sold through more than one group of wholesalers, he said.

Industry experts were staying out of the crossfire.

Mr. Carey of VARDS said both parties are technically correct about their rankings; Kenneth Kehrer, a consultant in Princeton, N.J., said private disputes over ranking methodologies are common but rarely get aired in public.

Mr. Carey said VARDS measures variable annuities sales by issuance because "the insurer is the one who's on the hook for those assets." VARDS has no plans to rank distributors because the definitions are murkier.

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