Sales of variable life insurance products have hit a record high, and variable annuity sales also are running strong.

In the first half of 1993, net sales of variable life insurance products surpassed net sales for all of 1992 by 32%, according to data released last week by Lipper Analytical Services.

The figure for the first six months - $632.7 million - is higher than for any full year in the past, Lipper reported. Net sales for the first half of 1992 were about $170 million.

Variable Annuity Sales Up 50%

Net variable annuity sales reached $13.2 billion in the first half of the year, up from $8.8 billion in the same period last year, according to Lipper's estimates.

Variable annuities are insurance contracts that provide an income stream. While income payments fluctuate, depending on the value of the underlying mutual funds, the investments are tax-exempt until tapped.

"The passage of the current tax package is going to make tax deferring more important than ever for most individuals," said R.H. "Rick" Carey, publisher of the Variable Annuities Research Data Services Report.

Sales are also being driven by the overall growth of the mutual funds industry, consumers' increased needs to save for retirement, and greater product awareness, Mr. Carey said.

"Annuitization is in everyone's best interest," he said.

More People Taking Risks

The dramatic drop in interest rates has pushed more people into taking some kind of risk, said Joseph W. Jordan, vice president of Metropolitan Life's pension and savings center. Variable annuities have a lot of appeal for first time risk-takers, he said.

As the popularity of these products has grown, so has the number of funds offered. There now are about 1,000 variable annuity funds, five times as many as in 1987. "There are a lot of companies designing variable annuities," Mr. Carey said. "It's just a great product."

He expects banks to increase their share of the variable annuity market, noting that bank customers are very comfortable with the product. Ultimately, he predicts, "banks are going to be the biggest distributor."

Mr. Jordan, a board member of the National Association of Variable Annuities, Reston, Va., predicts significant growth in variable annuity sales as more banks come aboard.

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