American Express Financial Advisors, the financial planning arm of American Express ( AXP), is paying a $350,000 fine to settle allegations that its employees used improper sales practices in peddling variable annuities and life-insurance policies. The NASD, formerly the National Association of Securities Dealers, fined and censured American Express for violations that occurred over a 30-month period ending in 2000. Regulators contend that the firm's employees "did not adequately explain" to customers the benefits or limitations of a variable annuity and how it differs from an investment in a mutual fund. A variable annuity, a financial instrument that makes periodic payments to a customer during his or her lifetime, is one of the life-insurance industry's staple products. One downside of variable annuities is that they sometimes include high fees and commissions for the brokers that are selling them. American Express, in paying the fine, neither admitted nor denied the allegation -- something that's customary in settling regulatory inquiries.