Large U.S. life insurers had a solid first half, but the last few weeks have been worrisome.

Ratings analysts at Moody’s Investors Service, New York, give that assessment in an industry review that seesaws between positive comments on the first half and expressions of concerns about the worries about European banks and financial market volatility that have occurred since June 30.

Most publicly traded U.S. life insurers were more profitable in the first half than in the first half of 2010, and their investment impairments continued to decrease, the analysts say.

Gross variable annuity sales and life sales continued to growth, and the life insurers who were willing to take on more fixed annuity business increased fixed annuity sales, the analysts say.

“Financial flexibility remains solid, and access to the capital markets remains strong,” the analysts say. “Insurers are now comfortable enough with their earnings prospects and capitalization to take a more normal level of dividends from their operating companies.”

But the analysts say the market volatility could hurt variable product sales clearly reduces the value of life companies’ stock. Lower stock prices reduce insurers’ ability to use the stock as currency to acquire other companies, the analysts say.

At companies with large disability insurance operations, high unemployment levels could put pressure on claims levels and profit margins, the analysts say.

Meanwhile, the analysts say, some life insurers have coped with the current low interest rate environment by stretching for yield by investing in somewhat riskier assets.

- Allison Bell

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