The pace of the U.S. life and annuity industry's emergence from COVID-19 disruption accelerated late in an otherwise challenging 2020, according to a new report from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Life, annuity, and accident and health direct premiums and considerations increased 1.1% in 2020, fueled by double-digit growth in group annuities and a smaller-than-expected decline in ordinary individual annuities, according to statutory data compiled as of March 8 by S&P Global. Among the findings of the U.S. Life and Annuity Analysis, annuity premiums rallied sharply late in the year, and renewed activity in the pension-risk transfer market helped drive growth in group annuities in the fourth quarter.

In the individual annuity business, direct premiums and considerations surged 9.7% in the fourth quarter after having posted declines in each of the previous four quarters that ranged from 3.5% in the third quarter of 2020 to 20.5% in the second quarter of 2020.

"The extent to which COVID-19 disrupted production varied by product and distribution," wrote Tim Zawacki, a principal research analyst with S&P Global. "In 2021, more typical factors such as interest rates, product innovation and market competition are likely to drive overall trends."

While annual statutory statements don’t break out sales of particular categories of products, survey data compiled by LIMRA's Secure Retirement Institute shows some dramatic positive and negative changes, S&P said. For full-year 2020, individual annuity sales fell 9%, but they rose 2% in the fourth quarter, according to the Secure Retirement Institute.

Sales of registered index-linked and fixed-rate deferred annuities surged 71% and 46% year over year in the fourth quarter of 2020, respectively, and by 38% and 10% for the full year.

At the other end of the spectrum, fixed indexed annuities capped off a challenging 2020 in which sales tumbled by 24% with a 17% fourth-quarter decline. Traditional variable annuity sales fell 12% in the quarter and the full year.

Sharp quarterly swings abounded in 2020. Direct premiums in the individual annuity line for West Des Moines-based American Equity Investment Life Holding Co. ended the year down 25.9% even after a 100.1% surge in the fourth quarter, fueled by growth of 530.3% at Eagle Life Insurance Co.

And the individual annuity business turned positive for full-year 2020 for the U.S. life units of Athene Holding Ltd. after they posted growth of 99.3% in the fourth quarter. Athene USA is also based in West Des Moines.