Bank sales of variable life insurance doubled in 1999, according to a study by Kenneth Kehrer Associates, but their share of the market remains minuscule.

"Lots of banks are trying to sell it, but no particular bank is selling a lot of it, as you can see by these numbers," president Kenneth Kehrer said. In 1999 banks sold $88 million in variable life insurance products, up from $42 million in 1998. The variable-life marketplace increased $410 million last year, to $3.29 billion, according to Limra International, a life insurance trade group based in Windsor, Conn.

The Hartford, Nationwide, and Credit Union National Association Mutual have sold the most products through banks, according to the Kehrer study.

"I think banks have been challenged to find the right way to sell this," Mr. Kehrer said. "The question is, who should sell this product? Should it be sold by financial consultants who also sell mutual funds and annuities? Should it be sold by specialists, people who only sell this kind of product? Should it be sold by a specialist working in the branches, or should it be sold by someone working in the high-end parts of the company, like the wealth management group?"

Banks have been trying all these methods, but have not found the perfect sales formula, Mr. Kehrer said.

The "overwhelming question that will be visited time and time again over the next few years is why don't banks sell more life insurance per se, not just this product," he said, noting that banks have not had immense success with any of the major insurance products. "It's a question that banks have been grappling with for years."

There are a number of reasons life insurance sales through banks have been disappointing, but the biggest cause, Mr. Kehrer said, is that the sale of life insurance in general has been poor.

"Sales of life insurance are difficult for anybody, and all distribution channels have struggled," Mr. Kehrer said. Many people, he said, are unfamiliar with the advantages of life insurance and are unaware of how much they need.

In addition, he said, "the psychology of the American public has turned away from worrying about whether they are going to die too soon, to worrying about whether they're going to live too long."

"There's a tremendous interest in investing for retirement, and little interest in buying life insurance," he said. Americans are bombarded with information about mutual funds from every magazine and television program, while interest in buying life insurance has lagged, he said.

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