Banks are becoming an increasingly visible, and important, distribution channel for Allstate Corp.

In 2000 the Northbrook, Ill., insurer nearly doubled its sales of variable annuities through banks and thrifts, to $1.173 billion, from $588 million in 1999. Bank and thrift sales amounted for 25% of its overall variable annuity sales.

But much of that growth came from a joint venture annuity launched in May 1999. The annuity, underwritten by Allstate, uses investment portfolios managed by mutual fund giant Putnam Investments.

More than 99% of Allstate's bank variable annuity sales come from two joint venture products, according to John Hunter, managing director for Allstate Distributors LLC, the distribution arm for Allstate Financial. These are Putnam-Allstate Advisor, the joint venture with Putnam Investments, and Aim Lifetime Plus, a variable annuity using portfolios overseen by Aim Management Group in Denver. Allstate distributes Lifetime Plus through its Glenbrook Life and Annuity Co. subsidiary.

Putnam-Allstate Advisor had $763.8 million of sales through banks in 2000, making it the top-selling variable annuity Allstate offered to banks. Nearly all the rest of the bank channel annuity sales were of Aim Lifetime Plus, Allstate said.

Allstate's bank variable annuity sales, though robust for most of the year, dipped in the fourth quarter. The company had $258 million of sales through banks that quarter, compared with $334 million in the third quarter.

"The market's volatility left lots of people on the sidelines," Mr. Hunter said. "I'm optimistic we'll see modest growth in the first quarter. I don't expect it to come roaring back right away, but more people are going to decide to get off the sidelines, and that will increase sales."

On the fixed annuity side, bank sales accounted for 49.3% of those Allstate sold last year. Allstate's bank sales of fixed annuities rose slightly, to $1.424 billion, from $1.364 billion in 1999.

And like its variable annuity sales, Allstate's fourth-quarter fixed annuity sales fell, to $256 million, from $377 million in the third quarter.

"Typically, fixed annuities are more attractive when interest rates are rising," Mr. Hunter said. "So all things considered, we were about where we wanted to be in the fourth quarter."

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