The turbulent economic environment continues to hold the life insurance industry hostage, as premium from individual life insurance sales declined 26% in the first quarter of 2009, according to LIMRA’s U.S. Individual Life Insurance Sales report.

“Historically, recessions have had little effect on individual life insurance sales; however, it appears the severity of this current economic downturn has impacted sales dramatically,” said Robert Kerzner, president and CEO of LIMRA, a worldwide research, consulting and professional development organization that helps more than 850 insurance and financial services companies in 73 countries increase their marketing and distribution effectiveness. “To put it into perspective, the last time quarterly sales dropped this much was in 1943.”

No product line was spared, but variable life products fared the worst. Not one company was able to increase its variable sales, and all of the declines were severe. Altogether, variable premium fell 61%.

Universal life (UL) sales were down 33% for the quarter—the third consecutive quarter of double-digit declines. A year ago, UL was the only product line showing strong growth and keeping overall individual life insurance sales afloat.

Despite posting positive growth during the final three quarters of 2008, whole life (WL) also saw a drop in the first quarter, down 5% compared to a year ago. While term insurance experienced the smallest decline, dropping only 4%. Mutual companies that issue the majority of WL were less affected by the Wall Street turmoil, while term products are affordable, likely making them easier to sell right now.

Preliminary estimates reveal that term and WL each represented 28% of the annualized premium issued in the U.S. in first quarter of 2009; a record for term and the highest share for WL since 1999.

Overall policy count continued its downward trend in the first quarter, down 8%. All product lines experienced declines—with VL and VUL dropping the most, 23% and 51% respectively.

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