To MetLife Inc., variable annuities are not an all-or-nothing proposition.
Though many financial firms stopped introducing variable annuity products in the past year as sales slumped, MetLife took another course: It launched a simplified version that, the New York company said, will appeal to customers and be easier for more bank representatives to sell.
Kevin Crowe, the managing director of the bank channel for MetLife, said it has been developing the Simple Solution Variable Annuity for more than a year despite harsh market conditions. He said the company wanted to design a "straightforward and simplified" product designed primarily for individual investors at or near retirement who buy their investments through banks.
These investors want products that offer a guarantee, Crowe said, such as a certificate of deposit.
"For the past couple of years, we have spoken to different individuals in the banking market that were sort of concerned that in this annuity arms race on the variable annuity side everyone had gotten so gung ho about developing fancy riders and benefits that the products had gotten too complicated and too expensive," he said.
Crowe said when the economy slumped, MetLife did not waver about the product. "They always believed in the concept of delivering a basic and simple product, even when competitors stopped introducing products," he said. "I think that we have always thought that there is no better time for an annuity with annual step ups than when the market is down."
Analysts said the product is attractive because it is simple enough that it can be sold through licensed series 6 platform representatives, who typically are not permitted to sell variable annuities because they are too complex. For example, Crowe said the typical variable annuity application is eight or nine pages long, and Simple Solutions is two pages.
Kenneth Kehrer, the research director at Kehrer-Limra in Princeton, N.J., said by selling through platform reps MetLife has an opportunity for a significant boost in variable annuity sales through banks. "There are like 15,000 full-time financial advisers in banks, but there are over 50,000 platform reps and 25,000 to 35,000 can sell variable annuities, but most banks don't let them because they are too complicated," he said.
Kehrer said variable annuity sales have been "disappointing" this year, and this has forced some companies to reconsider introducing products. He said he thinks the simplified variable annuity will be attractive to banks. "MetLife is attacking a segment of the market that appears to be underserved," he said. "Variable annuities are designed for income later. This is designed specifically for people that want income now."
According to the Kehrer-Limra Monthly Bank Annuity Sales Survey, both fixed and variable annuity sales through banks grew in March the first time sales of both annuity product types posted increases since March 2008. MetLife's sales increased 10% in the first quarter to $3.735 billion from the previous quarter.
Other analysts said some companies are slowly beginning to introduce variable annuities again. On Monday, Genworth Life and Annuity Insurance Co., a unit of Genworth Financial Inc. of Richmond, Va., launched a variable annuity for retirees.
Crowe said most banks limit the products series 6 reps can sell.
Simple Solutions is available to banks in 38 states and Crowe said "two large banks with more than 1,000" branches began selling it Tuesday. He declined to name them. He said he expects to have six to eight banks selling it by the end of October and 15 to 20 banks by the end of the year. "We don't really want a lot more than that in the first five months," Crowe said. "We know what the product is and what it can do. We just want to get it the marketing and training. There are a lot of things we are going to be able to learn from that first batch of banks."