WASHINGTON–Theodore A. Mathas and John Walters see some good happening for the life insurance business and its customers amid the wake of the economic crisis.

The two insurance leaders spelled out some of those things here during a wide-ranging opening session of the annual life insurance conference cosponsored by LIMRA, LOMA, Society of Actuaries, and ACLI.

Mathas is president of New York Life Insurance Company, New York, and Walters is president of Hartford Life Inc., Hartford, Conn.

This is an opportune time for life insurance companies and agents to help formulate the consumer psyche, said Mathas in his opening remarks.

There is no question that “people feel less power in their lives, less secure in their lives.” he said. “They are frustrated and angry at government, large corporations, and at so-called Wall Street.”

But he also said “there is opportunity here.”

This is the opportunity to foster a growing sense of accountability among customers, to remind people that “they have individual responsibility to do something on their own” about their financial and retirement security, Mathas said.

“You can’t wait to save for retirement when you’re about in retirement,” he observed.

He said that “everybody is starting to understand that the idea of taking on increasing levels of debt has to end at some point of time.”

This is leading to a return among consumers of prudence and responsibility, Mathas said.

The industry is also in a period of “great uncertainty,” he continued. But the life insurance industry “is about, and can be about, security and guarantees,” he said, “so that’s what we should be talking about.”

That’s important because “when people feel uncertain, you can’t predict the future, but you can provide stability and clarity with a sound financial plan and with the backing of a strong company providing guarantees,” he said.

Looking forward, he said the life insurance business “can help shape and turn this crisis into where there is a bit of return to personal financial responsibility–where there is a basic plan with basic protection with some stable elements in it. That plays to the strengths of our industry.”

But the industry will have to work to make that focus sustainable, he said, so that once the stock market is back up, consumers don’t get caught up once again in risky financial behavior.

Right now, the industry has the leverage, he concluded. “People are paying more attention. So we should take advantage of that, help people return to personal financial responsibility.”

Walters also see concern and hope.

“People clearly are more concerned,” he said, noting that people started feeling a “more serious emotional responsibility” after they saw what can happen if they take financial matters lightly and don’t plan appropriately. “

“I think that bears very well for the industry,” he said.

To illustrate, Walters pointed out that the flows of money into fixed income mutual funds have greatly increased. In fact, for the moment, the mutual fund business has become a fixed income business, he said.

But the history of the mutual fund industry shows that, “when all the flows are going in one direction, they are usually wrong,” Walters continued.

“You’ve got to pay attention to that. It says, people are scared, and they are over-reacting. People need advice to [help] get back them back into a more balanced position.”

Another trend Walters discussed that also points to opportunity for the life insurance business is “a very strong renewed interest in actually doing something about the estate planning or personal protection planning that people have been thinking about for a long time.”

When people are in a period of extreme turmoil, they tend to put off taking care of those things, he said. They do that “because they aren’t sure what to do and they don’t want take that step and don’t want to make that final decision.”

But, in his company’s life insurance business, there has been a change. “We’re seeing people who are more willing to make that final decision–to commit, get it in place, and be done with it,” Walters said. That “bodes very well for the industry.”