In the 1st quarter of 2006, new sales of variable annuities at $37.6 billion fell just short of their all-time high.
The 1st quarter total was a 9% increase over 4th quarter 2005 new sales of $34.5 billion and just shy of the previous high water mark of $38 billion reached in the 1st quarter of 2000, just prior to what we now know was the beginning of the bear market.
Mutual fund flows reached a new high in the 1st quarter as well, with $116.5 billion in net new cash flow, $93 billion of which went to stock mutual funds, according to Investment Company Institute statistics. There has always been a high correlation between equity market returns and flows into (and out of) stock mutual funds and variable annuity products, and 1st quarter sales data certainly reflects this.
The hope is that the industry is also seeing the beginning of the influence of variable annuity sales to the largest generation of retirees in history, but it is worth noting that record mutual fund and variable annuity flows and an inverted yield curve have all occurred recently, and all are infrequent events that were last observed in early 2000, just prior to the start of a multiyear bear market.
The question is whether hindsight will identify the significant increase in variable annuity sales in the 1st quarter as the beginning of the boomer-driven boost the financial services industry has been awaiting, or the all too often observed increase in inflows at a market high point followed by a period of declining returns.
Variable annuity sales increased quarter over quarter in all channels except regional. Bank sales of VAs increased 12.8%, from $4.5 billion to $5.1 billion. Wirehouse sales were up 27.1%, to $4.6 billion from $3.6 billion. The regional broker/dealers saw the only decrease in overall sales, dropping from $3.4 billion to $3.1 billion, a 9.3% decline. In the independent financial planner channel, sales increased 12.7% to $12.1 billion, a $1.4 billion increase and the largest increase in dollar terms. Captive agency sales posted a modest 2.5% improvement, from $12 billion to $12.3 billion. Finally, the direct response channel posted the largest percentage increase, rising 29.1% to $526 million from $407 million.