The Hartford Insurance Group has purchased a 25 percent stake in Richmond's WFS Financial Corp., and in return Wheat, First Securities, a WFS subsidiary, has agreed to market exclusively a number of Hartford's insurance policies.

Perrin Long, who analyzes brokerage firms for Lipper Analytical Distributors, said that a number of insurance companies such as Hartford are buying into securities firms to guarantee a distribution network for their products in an era when the lines distinguishing banking, securities and insurance are blurring rapidly.

By buying 25 percent or more of a smaller firm, the insurance company makes sure that no one can purchase the 80 percent stake needed to merge totally with the broker, Long said. At the same time, the insurance company protects its "interest in these firms as a channel of distribution," he said. A spokesman for Hartford said the company is shopping for other regional brokerage firms to buy into.

Hartford Chairman Deroy C. Thomas said the affiliation with Wheat "represents for us the first step in the development of an additional base from which to market our universal life insurance product . . . variable annuities and other investment-related products which are still in the development stages."

Wheat, First has 380 brokers in 48 offices in Washington, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North and South Carolina.

On March 31, Wheat had about $14 million in capital. A spokesman said that most of the stock was purchased from existing shareholders of the Richmond-based company.

Hartford, which is owned by International Telephone and Telegraph Corp., has assets of $12.3 billion.