If a Dalbar Inc. poll is a good prophet, Hartford Life will remain No. 1 in bank sales of variable annuities and American General will lose that rank in fixed annuities.

Boston-based Dalbar Inc. asked 320 financial professionals working for or in banks to rank the performance of six providers of fixed annuities, nine of variable annuities, and 17 of mutual funds distributed through banks. They were asked to consider wholesaler support, investment management, operations support, sales literature, timeliness, and communication.

Dalbar has conducted the annual survey for more than a decade. "These rankings tend to predict what is likely to happen" in sales, said Lou Harvey, president of the financial services research firm. "If we see a company falling out of favor, even if it's still a hot seller, over time it will drop."

If true, that is bad news for Houston-based American General, which according to The Kehrer Report was the top bank seller of fixed annuities in the first half of the year. It finished sixth in the fixed annuity category of the Dalbar survey, and finished last in wholesaler support among fixed annuity providers.

American General's size and the success of its product make it hard for it to keep enough wholesalers in the field, Mr. Harvey said. The company "lacks the coverage in the field that their competitors do. Honestly, this is part of the price of being big. They've been very successful in selling the product."

Bruce Abrams, executive vice president of sales for American General, said he is not very concerned about the Dalbar study's findings.

"A lot of what we sell is proprietary products that banks wholesale themselves, so we don't wholesale," Mr. Abrams said. "We've been No. 1 for 18 quarters in a row in fixed annuity sales through banks, so we're adding value, and the banks believe that too. There's a reason they keep selling our products."

American General sold $855 million in fixed annuities through banks in the second quarter of 1999, easily the most of any company in the bank distribution channel, according to The Kehrer Report, which tracks bank sales of annuities and mutual funds and is published by Princeton, N.J.-based Kenneth Kehrer Associates.

In the Dalbar study, Jackson National Life Insurance Co. of Lansing, Mich., finished first among fixed annuity sellers overall. Allstate Cos. came in second.

"Jackson National learned what the needs of the banks are and what kinds of questions customers ask and through their call center can assist customers," Mr. Harvey said. "If someone wants to roll over a CD, or wants information on rates and other concerns in the fixed income market, Jackson can take care of it."

Bradley Powell, the president of Jackson National's institutional marketing group in Atlanta, said his company has used focus groups around the country to pinpoint how to improve its service.

"People want a competitive market, but we're hearing that pricing isn't everything," Mr. Powell said. "Service and support are most important."

Jackson National plans to sell over $900 million in fixed and variable annuities through banks this year, up from $756 million in 1999, Mr. Powell said. "Next year we want to be over $1 billion."

As for Allstate, Mr. Harvey said the company is helped by its widespread brand recognition. "They have credibility and they execute," he said.

Hartford Life had the highest score among all variable annuity providers in the Dalbar study and, according to The Kehrer Report, sold $2.237 billion of annuities, mostly variables, in the first half.

"They are constantly strong in investment management, always picking good managers," Mr. Harvey said.

Hartford Life has three variable annuities on the market: the Capital Manager, managed by Putnam; the Leaders annuity, managed by American Funds, MFS Investment Management and Franklin Templeton; and the very successful Director annuity, managed by Wellington Management.

The Director received high marks for its wholesale support, Mr. Harvey said.

"Wholesale support is critical for banks, especially when it comes to variable annuities, because the banks look for education and support from the insurer," Mr. Harvey said.

Hartford Life finished second in wholesale support to Boston-based Manulife, whose parent company is the Toronto-based Manulife of Canada.

"Manulife has really beefed up its presence," Mr. Harvey said. "Unfortunately for them, they don't have the investment management presence that Hartford Life has."

Hartford Life and MFS finished first and second, respectively, in the mutual fund rankings.

"Hartford Life is relatively new to mutual funds, but they took what works for them in variable annuities and made it work in mutual funds," Mr. Harvey said.

American Funds finished third overall in the mutual funds ranking, despite a 17th-place finish in wholesaler support. It finished second in operations support and sales literature, and third in communications.

"They are the story in mutual funds, because they did this even though they don't provide strong support for the bank channel," Mr. Harvey said. "They are successful in spite of their effort."

Dreyfus finished dead last in the mutual funds overall rankings. The Mellon Financial Corp. subsidiary's failure is due to a weak product, Mr. Harvey said.

"Years ago, they moved aggressively into fixed incomes when equity products were the name of the game," Mr. Harvey said. "Then about two years ago they came out with an equity product that did well for one year and then blew up in their face. The performance was not sustainable."

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