Fast, flexible life insurers that know how to work with independent distributors should have a bright future.

Donna Kinnaird, president of Swiss Re Life and Health America Inc., Stamford, Conn., made that prediction here at an insurance industry conference organized by KPMG L.L.P.

Life insurers have had trouble increasing their share of U.S. retirement assets since 1990, and their return-on-equity ratios have lagged behind ROEs at banks and diversified financial services firms, Kinnaird said.

But life insurers are in a great position to meet consumers’ needs going forward, Kinnaird said.

Among the typical life insurer’s strengths, Kinnaird said, are underwriting skills, a license to underwrite risks, an understanding of long-tailed risk, strong capitalization and access to capital markets.

Many young workers are saving to pay bills that will start come in sometime in the 2030s or 2040s. Insurers are more comfortable than other financial services companies at making bets on events that will occur sometime during the next 30 or 40 years, Kinnaird said.

Kinnaird predicted that distribution will play a major role in separating the life insurance leaders from the laggards.

Some life insurers have done an excellent job of working with “captive” agent forces, but “I see truly effective life insurance companies migrating to independent distribution,” Kinnaird said.

Kinnaird also talked about the future of payout annuities, or annuities that workers can use to convert retire nest eggs into streams of retirement income.

The companies that lead in that market will be those that succeed at easing consumers’ concerns about giving up control over the nest eggs, either by modifying the products or by coming up with marketing campaigns that can convince consumers that relinquishing control over the assets will be good for them, Kinnaird said.