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3 New Thoughts From the AXA US Individual Annuities Chief

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Kevin Kennedy is one of the life insurance industry executives in charge of pulling the U.S. individual annuity market out of its current slump, in time to do something for the baby boomers, and older members of Generation X, who are rushing toward retirement age.

Kennedy, head of individual annuities at AXA US, talked about the challenges facing the market recently in a telephone interview.

(Related: U.S. Individual Annuity Sales Drop Slows: LIMRA

Kennedy has been involved in annuity sales at AXA since 2004, when he started out as a divisional sales manager. He began running the U.S. individual annuities operation in January.

AXA US is an arm Paris-based AXA S.A., one of the world’s largest financial services organizations. In the United States, the company ruffled some feathers in 2011 by introducing the buffer annuity, a product that provides somewhat more protection against an investment index drop than a typical variable annuity and somewhat less protection than a typical indexed annuity, in return for upside participation caps that are higher than the caps that come with the typical indexed annuity.

New sales figures from LIMRA show that the company’s overall individual annuity sales increased to $5.5 billion in the second quarter, from $5.1 billion in the second quarter of 2016. Total U.S. individual annuity sales fell 9.8% over that same period.

Ice cream (Photo: Thinkstock)

(Photo: Thinkstock)

The increase at AXA US helped push the company to fifth place in the LIMRA sales rankings, from sixth place a year earlier.

Here’s a look at three things Kennedy is saying about the individual annuity market now.

1. He’s hoping the firmer-looking second-quarter annuity sales figures mean something.

LIMRA, which is a nonprofit industry consortium, and Wink, a private research firm, recently came out with survey figures that tell a similar story: U.S. individual annuity sales were lower than they were in the second quarter of 2016, but the year-over-year decline was much smaller than in the first quarter.

“Maybe things are starting to normalize,” Kennedy said. “People realized that there are problems out there, and that annuities solve these problems.”

2. He thinks people who are in their 40s or 50s now are probably similar to people who were in their 40s or 50s in earlier generations.

Kennedy said he is skeptical about the idea that today’s financial services customers are much different from the customers who were buying financial services products 20 years ago.

“I have not seen much of a shift,” he said.

People in their 40s, for example, tend to have a good income, and that means they are interested in products that can help them defer income taxes, Kennedy said.

People in their 40s are also likely to be interested in flexibility, he said.

The fact that those people are in their 40s, have certain kinds of resources, and face certain kinds of challenges probably shapes what they buy more than what generation they’re in, he said.

3. He thinks vanilla is a hot flavor.

AXA US has experimented by offering customers exposure to a number of different unusual investment indexes in indexed products, but, about 93% of the time, customers end up using the same three indexes, Kennedy said.

“They want something very vanilla and easy,” he said.

Kennedy said he believes the same is true of the financial professionals who sell the annuities.

“I think advisors wants simpler, more transparent products,” he said.

Kennedy would like to see the shift toward fee-based annuity contracts, and away from commission-based sales, help insurers respond to the hunger for plain-vanilla products by simplifying disclosure documents.

Today, he said, annuity disclosure materials tend to be much more voluminous than the comparable materials for mutual funds.

“There’s always a higher burden on the variable annuity,” he said.

He’s hoping growing similarity in compensation arrangements will lead to growing similarity in disclosure forms.

— Read Annuity Sales May Be Starting to Firm Up: Wink on ThinkAdvisor.

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