Variable annuity sales were slightly higher in the fourth quarter of 2009 than in the third quarter, but total sales were lower in 2009 than in 2008, according to the Insured Retirement Institute.

Fourth quarter sales ticked up to $31.9 billion from $31 billion in the previous quarter, says IRI, Washington. IRI based its report on data compiled for IRI by a unit of Morningstar Inc., Chicago.

Total VA premium sales for all of 2009 fell to $125.1 billion, from $154.8 billion in 2008, IRI says.

Other IRI VA market findings:

- Net VA sales edged up in fourth quarter to $2.9 billion, from $2.8 billion in the third quarter.

- Net assets in U.S. VA contracts rose to $1.354 trillion in fourth quarter, up from $1.311 trillion in the third quarter. Net assets in the fourth quarter of 2009 were 20.2% higher than in the fourth quarter of 2008, IRI says, adding that this is the first double-digit increase in net assets posted since September 2007.

- Sales of VA contracts for use in tax-qualified retirement plans accounted for $21.9 billion in fourth-quarter 2009 VA sales, and sales for VA contracts for other purposes accounted for the remaining $10 billion in sales.

- 2009 VA prospectus filings totaled more than 450.

“While we are pleased that sales were up slightly over previous quarter, it is not surprising that year-to-year sales were down,” says IRI President Cathy Weatherford. However, she says, the surge in VA assets “is a clear indicator that we are indeed on a solid road to recovery.”