Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make.
While competitors struggled last year, Jackson National Life Insurance Co. reported its best year for annuity sales through banks because it did not adopt risky riders, reduce benefits or increase pricing like other insurers in 2007 and 2008, said Jack Mishler, the western divisional vice president for Jackson National Life Insurance, a unit of London’s Prudential plc.
“We heard a lot of skepticism,” Mishler said. “We remained committed to our long-term approach. We weren’t going to go out and create some hot product that would last for three months or do some fire sale on products. None of that made sense for our customers. We never wanted to be a company that chased market share.”
For the past 10 years, insurers have created riders that, for a fee, can be attached to the basic annuity contract to offer additional benefits. Most annuities guarantee a minimum return on an investment, but riders can offer long-term health care benefits or guaranteed payouts. When markets were thriving, insurers used such bells and whistles to stand out in a crowded field, but when the economy faltered, insurers were forced to eliminate such riders or charge a steeper fee to investors.
Jackson reported that annuity sales in the bank channel increased 23.1% to $2.45 billion as variable annuity sales through banks increased 72.9% from a year earlier to $1.3 billion last year.
Barry Lowery, the company’s eastern divisional vice president, said the company had strong sales from both its fixed index annuities and its variable annuities. He said Jackson had the top selling variable annuity contract in the bank channel last year with its Perspective II variable annuity.
According to Limra International, sales of variable annuities declined 18% to $127 billion last year. Many insurance companies are either furnishing wholesalers with inexpensive scaled back products or riskier, more expensive, products with flamboyant riders.
Lisa Plotnick, an analyst at Boston-based Cerulli Associates, said that she expects “a new era of stabilization and rationalization.” In short, insurers simply can’t afford to slip back into bad habits, aggressively pricing each other out of the market. “We expect them to do that,” she said.
Jackson has kept, and plans to continue to keep, prices steady on its variable annuities, Lowery said.
“Our wholesalers spend lot of time defending our price structure,” he said. “We have competitors that charge 30% to 50% less for their riders and, frankly, it was difficult, especially in 2008. We gave up some market share because we determined that we didn’t want to compete based on price. Long-term we are convinced it was a smart philosophy. It is very important not to make pricing changes just for the sake of sales. Pricing changes have to make sense for Jackson, our clients, and our parent company. We aren’t interested in playing the shell game.”
Mishler said Jackson is confident that it designed a set of variable annuities for both good and bad market conditions so it “didn’t have to go out and make a slew of changes to draw advisors and clients.”
“We saw in 2009 a real flight to quality,” Mishler said. “With our ratings and the way we have remained committed to the things that we do on a daily basis, we have drawn more customers.”
That said, some riders continue to draw investors. According to Limra, guaranteed living benefits remained popular, with 84% of policyholders electing to buy those riders in the fourth quarter.
To maintain its momentum from last year, Jackson National plans to work with wholesalers nationally to increase sales through banks. Mishler said last year, as competitors told wholesalers to stay at home, Jackson increased sales by adding wholesalers. It now has 33 external wholesalers focused on selling through banks.
“We plan to keep showing up every day and that will help us build advisor loyalty,” he said. “If sales grow we have the green light to add more wholesalers.”
Some analysts said they expect fixed annuities to continue to grow this year, especially considering President Obama’s support for such products.
But as we emerge from the bear market, Lowery said, “many people are starting to look around for more.”
“Interest rates are extremely low and the returns on CD’s and fixed annuities are pretty low,” he said. “People want the protection, but they also want some upside potential. Variable annuities offer both.”
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