Wells Fargo & Co. is equipping its brokers with computer software that profiles customers interested in its variable annuity and picks an investment style for them.

The software, dubbed Stagecoach Variable Annuity Advisor, was customized for Wells Fargo by American Skandia Life Assurance Corp., Shelton, Conn., which underwrites the bank's proprietary variable annuity.

While asset allocation software is commonly used in selling mutual funds, it's only beginning to be used in the marketing of annuities.

"You have to bring value to the table," said Bayard F. Tracy, senior vice president of institutional sales for Skandia. "By offering products like these, we don't have to compete exclusively on price or performance."

Variable annuities combine the features of an insurance policy with a mutual fund, and give the investor a tax break in the process. Earnings accumulate tax-free until withdrawal, making the product a popular retirement savings vehicle.

Skandia's Windows-based software, rolled out in September, is being used by Wells' 250 investment representatives based in bank branches, Mr. Tracy said.

The underwriter provides the program for free, but it's not the only attention the company lavishes on one of its biggest clients. Skandia also has two dedicated wholesale representatives who spend their time drumming up sales within the Wells branch system.

It's been nearly a year and a half since Skandia helped Wells launch its proprietary variable annuity, Stagecoach Variable Annuity Plus. Mr. Tracy said Wells sells up to $15 million a month of this product, and sales are expected to increase now that the software is in the hands of Wells' salespeople.

"The software isn't only for the customer. It's also there to familiarize the sales rep with the product," he added.

The program asks customers a series of questions about their current finances, risk tolerance, and when they think they will cash in the investment.

A profile is created, in this case using risk-reward criteria specified by Wells, and an asset allocation model is formed for the variable annuity. For example, a young investor willing to take on more risk might purchase a variable annuity weighted in aggressive stocks.

Other Skandia bank clients are using similar software to sell annuities. But the Wells program, which took three months to develop, was customized to include Wells' Stagecoach Funds, as well as mutual fund portfolios from Berger & Associates, Alger Management, and Pimco Advisors.

Still, some observers say that the software program, while it fills a niche, actually does little more than keep the annuity product on the forefront of a sales rep's mind.

"When a customer is making an investment decision, the rep should be looking at the entire financial picture instead of one product," said Kenneth Kehrer, an annuities consultant in Princeton, N.J.

But software is simply one means that vendors are using to stem the recent decline in annuity sales, Mr. Kehrer said.

Sales of variable annuities through the bank channel during the first half were down 35% from the same period in 1994, he said.

The slump has caused some banks to put the brakes on plans to roll out proprietary variable annuities. Right now, 15 banks have their own variable annuities, including Signet Banking Corp. and another Skandia client, Fleet Financial Group.

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