Strong variable annuity (VA) sales helped push total U.S. individual annuity sales higher in the fourth quarter of 2010, according to LIMRA.

LIMRA, Windsor, Conn., says fixed annuity (FA) sales fell to $19 billion in the fourth quarter of 2010, down 9% from the total for the fourth quarter of 2009.

But VA sales climbed 17%, to $38.5 billion, and total individual annuity sales rose 6%, to about $58 billion, LIMRA says.

LIMRA bases the quarterly annuity market reports on a survey that covers 96% of the of U.S. individual annuity market.

Annuity sales were stronger in the fourth quarter than they were in the rest of 2010: full-year sales fell 7%, to $221 billion.

Full-year VA sales were up 10%, at $140 billion.

Full-year FA sales fell 27%, to $81 billion.

A recession-related “flight to safety” buoyed FA sales in 2009; in 2010, low interest rates hurt FA sales.

The low-rate environment is not likely to change until the economy improves, LIMRA says.