Gristle in the Sausage
I love using the phrase “unintended consequences” when talking about our issues on Capitol Hill. It’s so commonly understood among veteran staffers that legislative actions produce market reactions, some that are unexpected and unintended. Whoops!
And sometimes these consequences are significant, like when Congress passed the behemoth rewrite of financial regulations in the Dodd-Frank Act.
A big unintended consequence of that law gave the Federal Reserve the authority to regulate non-bank “systemically important financial institutions” (SIFI), as designated by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), with the same capital standards that they impose on banks. Insurance companies at risk of being regulated by the Federal Reserve, like MetLife, Prudential and AIG, are facing the big threat of being held to an additional layer of capital standards that are bank-centric and threaten their regulatory compliance models and ultimate product safety.
The thing is, the business of insurance is very different from banking, and regulatory capital standards designed to protect consumers should reflect those differences. Property-casualty and life insurance products are underwritten with sophisticated data and predictable global risk-sharing schemes that inherently withstand most market fluctuations. And to protect consumers, different capital standards are imposed on insurance companies for the different models and products they produce. Traditional banks, however, have different economic threats, requiring different standards. There cannot be a run on insurers with claims the way there can be on banks.
The last economic crisis demonstrated varying insurance capital standards protected the insurance industry throughout the global debacle. Even AIG’s insurance operations were well protected (it was AIG’s non-insurance Financial Products division that led to the company’s demise). Allowing the Fed to regulate insurers with the same standards as banks not only threatens corporate compliance models but also ultimately makes it more expensive for insurers to share risk, increases the cost for the same level of coverage, and spikes prices for consumers.
Even the Congressional authors of the too-big-to-fail language recognize the issue and are pushing to correct it. Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, who originally authored the Dodd-Frank provision to allow FSOC to designate insurance companies as SIFIs, recognizes any capital standards imposed by the Fed should be duly tailored for insurance companies. She said in Congressional testimony: “I want to emphasize my belief that the Federal Reserve is able to take into account—and should take into account—the differences between insurance and other financial activities…While it is essential that insurers subject to Federal Reserve Board oversight be adequately capitalized on a consolidated basis, it would be improper, and not in keeping with Congress’s intent, for federal regulators to supplant prudential state-based insurance regulation with a bank-centric capital regime for insurance activities.”
Fed Chair Janet Yellen, who is tasked with implementing the law, agrees.
So there’s now legislation in the grinder designed to fix the problem by giving the Fed flexibility to tailor capital standards to the unique characteristics of the insurance industry. The bill passed the Senate earlier this summer without opposition, but at the time of this writing it is stalled in the House and risks being caught in the partisan battle between the House and Senate’s varying legislative vehicles.
It’s rightly frustrating to stakeholders and lawmakers that the fix is held up, but it’s not surprising that another serious unintended consequence is facing our industry. I’ve used the term when discussing FATCA, flood reform, and the ACA. I hope we can see the legislative fix to this latest unintended consequence signed into law soon.