How long will customers be willing to put money into fixed annuities rather than variable annuities or securities?

The question arises amid subtle but noteworthy changes in market measures.

For instance, VA sales are already beginning to rise a bit, as compared to first quarter 2009, according to most annuity tracking services.

Meanwhile, growth in sales of fixed annuities slipped a little in the first half–this after a stunning year of quarterly records in 2008.

And of course, the Dow is currently around 10,000, well above its March low of just over 6,500, though nowhere near the high two years ago of 14,164. The Street keeps sending messages that investors are holding back, but somebody must be bidding up those shares of stock.

Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis suggests money is definitely in motion. In May 2009, personal savings as a percentage of disposable personal income had reached 6.2%, according to BEA. That sounds promising, considering that it was at zero or just above throughout 2006 and 2007. But the bounce appears to have been short-lived. By June 2009, personal savings dropped to 4.6%. In July, it dropped again, to 4%, and in August, to 3%. So, personal savings just might be losing its luster.

The BEA figures track with trends the insurance industry has seen following every recession since the 1980s, when the modern form of variable annuities first took root. Annuity buyers just don’t stay on the fixed side of the fence once the stock market rebounds. When the skies look clear, they pull money from safe instruments and do something else with that money (either big spending or investing in securities, including VAs).

VA sales always rise after recession, and FA sales fall.

Will the pattern hold this time around? Annuity professionals are certainly studying this. If so, how can they prepare now?

Well, it’s possible that consumers could go back to buying securities, including VAs, in record numbers in the coming months. It could be they will “diss” FAs and ignore safe-money features and guarantees.

But there are some indications that things might not go quite that way. For one, most sources agree that the VA sales occurring today typically involve products having some type of guaranteed living benefits feature attached. The point is that consumers who are moving into at-risk products want a safety net too.

If this trend continues, the market now shaping up, at least for personal and family sales, could be one that favors VAs with guarantees and FAs, and that treats pure at-risk securities as a sideline.

Another factor that may affect things is the sheer age of the American consumer. The current recession is winding down at a time when millions of baby boomers are entering or preparing to enter retirement. Those who have money to invest will not think lightly about putting those assets in pure at-risk products. They will be more concerned with securing a regular monthly income in retirement.

Indeed, conversations among such boomers often include table-pounding assertions that they will “never” put their assets back in the stock market. If a loved one lost a job or suffered a serious health problem during the recession, these boomers can be absolutely vehement about keeping their money safe, forever.

That could be fertile ground for insurance and bank-insurance professionals who are willing to promote annuities-with-guarantees at a time when the stock market is picking up.

But they will still need to proceed with caution. That is because a good many consumers, boomer or younger, are mad-as-all-get-out about the financial meltdown of 2008. Rightly or wrongly, they include insurance on their Personal Hit List of Forbidden Products. Some would rather get a .25% return from a bank certificate of deposit than see their money “locked up” in an insurance policy.

For all these reasons, annuity sales will likely be “unconventional” for the coming six months or so. Consumers will be receptive to moving money from safe-money places; they will consider securities but want guarantees; they will entertain annuity guarantees but wrestle with anti-insurance bias.

Advisors will need some time to get their bearings in this money-moving environment, and annuity issuers will need to update products and materials to address the new mood.

Soon annuity advisors will start rejecting certain products that don’t resonate. Companies will start rolling out new annuities, shaped to be more appealing to the now. And annuity experts will be sound-biting every single wiggle.

As far as I know, the early bird still gets the worm. So right now is probably the best time to start prepping for what is to come.