On the heels of last week's announcement that Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. Chairman and CEO Ramani Ayer would step down by year's end, the company's shares slipped yesterday after an analyst downgraded the stock, citing a "management vacuum," the AP reports.

The Hartford's board already has begun searching for a successor.

In a note to clients, Citi Investment Research analyst Joshua Shanker said the company will lose its fifth and most prominent member of management in two years, and cut his rating of the company to "Hold" from "Buy," according to the AP. Shanker also lowered his target price by to $19 from $21.

"While the board begins an external search for new top management, we believe that a meaningful management vacuum has been created where future strategic decision making could be stifled," Shanker wrote.

At The Hartford's annual meeting last month, Ayer defended the company's response to the recession. In April, Hartford posted a $1.2 billion first-quarter loss, and said it would suspend sales of annuities in Japan and the U.K. and halt plans to sell the products in Germany.

Ayer said Hartford Financial is focusing on becoming more "U.S.-centric" and taking other actions to preserve its capital, reduce risk and stabilize its ratings, the AP reports.

Hartford Financial has cut its dividend, and is one of six insurers allowed by the government to tap the Treasury Department's Troubled Asset Relief Program for additional capital. The company is eligible for $3.4 billion in TARP funds.

Shares fell 48 cents, or 3.3%, to $14.31 yesterday in afternoon trading.

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