Bankers and insurance agents, whose trade groups have clashed for years over who has the right to sell insurance, are suddenly calling for detente.

In a survey of 2,339 bankers and agents, respondents said the industries are passing up profit opportunities because they have been unable to defuse tensions. They estimated that profits from insurance sales through banks could rise as much as 15% if the industries would cooperate.

The survey, which is to be unveiled today, was spurred by the so-called Barnett decision-a March 1996 Supreme Court ruling that gave national banks considerable leeway in marketing insurance.

The survey offers fresh evidence that the cold war between bankers and agents is gradually giving way to rapprochement. It was commissioned by the American Bankers Association and the Independent Insurance Agents of America-the very trade groups that have been at each other's throats over insurance powers for years.

The associations said they conducted the survey in response to their members' growing mutual interest. The aim, they said in a joint report, was to give bankers and agents "information they need to make decisions about their present and future operations so that they can position themselves for success and continued profitability."

Still, a political thaw between the two factions could take some time to develop.

"If you look out a few years, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if we and the agents were on same side," said Edward Yingling, deputy executive vice president of the ABA. But, he added, "It is not likely that we will reach agreement on the insurance provisions in the legislation in the near future."

Indeed, the Independent Agents are promoting model state legislation that bankers claim would rein in some of the powers they gained in the Barnett case.

Survey respondents, however, saw considerable promise in banks' and insurance agencies' working together.

For instance, the survey found that 70% of the 661 bankers polled said bank insurance operations are or will be profitable; 57% of the 1,678 agents polled agreed.

Bankers were asked to rate their preferences for entering the insurance business. Forty-two percent said they would like to buy an agency; 35% favored a joint venture; 16% said they would team with an insurance underwriter; and 7% said they would choose some other route. Among banks not yet involved in insurance, joint ventures were seen as the top option, with 41% saying they would prefer this approach.

Agents, asked to rate various ways of teaming up with banks, offered sharply different answers. Joint ventures were rated highly or moderately interesting by 71%. Selling the agency was rated highly desirable by only 6%, while fully 44% said they were disinclined to sell.

Both groups rated personal property and casualty policies as the product with the most profit potential, with 62% of bankers and 42% of agents citing them.

Industry representatives said the findings could force them to rethink their long-running antagonism.

"This is a harbinger," said Jeffrey A. Myers, the Independent Agents' assistant vice president of public affairs. "It sets the stage for more of a long-term cooperative effort."

"Both industries have assets to offer each other," said Paul A. Buse, a consultant with Risk Management Services, Washington, which conducted the survey. "If they partner up, they can combine the powerful sales force of an insurance agency with the customer list and data processing facilities of a bank."

Rivalries between the industries are dissolving in part because banks, armed with expanded insurance powers, are becoming an economic force in the insurance industry.

Over the past year and half, dozens of insurance agencies have been snapped up by banks. In October, for instance, Peoples Heritage Financial Group, a $6.5 billion-asset banking company in Portland, Maine, bought the state's largest insurance agency.

"Those that are not in insurance now are interested in the lowest-risk approach they can find," said Bill Hayes, president and chief executive of Kish Valley National Bank, Belleville, Pa., which bought an agency in October. "But banks that have experience realize how crucial it is to own the insurance product line so they can better control the quality of the offering."

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