MetLife CEO makes case against being deemed ‘systemically important’

Mannie Garcia/BLOOMBERG - Steven Kandarian testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., in this 2009 file photo. The Metlife chief executive is warning of potential disruption of the insurance industry.

The chief executive of the nation’s largest life insurance company came to Washington this week with a message: Subjecting large companies to federal oversight could disrupt an entire industry just as the economy is regaining its footing.

The remarks by MetLife’s Steve Kandarian come as federal regulators say they are near a vote that is likely to put several big firms that play in financial markets — including American International Group, General Electric and Prudential — under the thumb of the Federal Reserve. That would impose on the firms a number of strict regulations, such as holding a lot of cash in reserve so they do not collapse in a crisis.

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Kandarian’s effort was notable because the heads of other large companies have remained relatively quiet on the matter, seemingly accepting their fate. But the move by regulators would be so important to his industry — as Kandarian sees it, the government would be hindering some firms while giving an advantage to others — that he made his case in Washington.

Having to set aside more money could force firms to reduce or stop offering some products. “Consumers could find lack of supply, higher prices, fewer features on products across the industry,” he said at a recent dinner.

Mary Miller, Treasury’s undersecretary for domestic finance, said Monday that the Financial Stability Oversight Council, an interagency panel of regulators, is in the final stages of reviewing institutions — such as insurers, hedge funds and asset managers — that could rattle the financial system if they were to fail. Those deemed risky would be designated “systemically important” financial firms and be subject to tougher oversight.

“The council will vote on designations in the next few months,” she told attendees at an international banking conference. “This is not a power the council wields cavalierly. We have designed a rigorous designation process that is thorough and fair.”

Although MetLife has not received notice from the government that it is under consideration, the firm could be named in the future, Kandarian said. The company is larger than life insurer Prudential Financial, which in October revealed it had reached the final stage of a review by the FSOC, just like GE Capital and AIG.

Nonetheless, critics of regulators question whether some financial firms are paying for the sins of one company.

Call it the legacy of AIG. The insurance giant cast a pall over its industry when it received $182 billion in government aid to save it from near collapse in 2008. Although it was AIG’s derivatives operation that crippled the company, the insurer’s entire business came under intense public scrutiny to the chagrin of others in the industry.

Lawmakers called for tougher oversight of financial companies like AIG, whose failure could have cost taxpayers billions. As a result, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law directed the FSOC to identify firms, outside of banks, that could pose a threat to the economy.

Senior MetLife officials began voicing concerns about the systemic risk designation last year. William Wheeler, president of the Americas, a division of MetLife, testified before a House panel in May about the unintended economic consequences.

Meanwhile, MetLife was casting off another form of government oversight. The company had been registered as a bank-holding company. But late last year, it sold its depository business, which cleared the way for it to deregister as a bank-holding company in January.

Some analysts say the business model of an insurance company is far sounder than other financial firms. Whereas banks have short-term obligations that could strain their reserves, insurance companies make long-term promises to policyholders with less risk, said Scott E. Harrington, a finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

But Marcus Stanley, the policy director at Americans for Financial Reform, said many insurance companies are producing financial products that put them in direct competition with investment banks and, therefore, warrant similar federal regulation.

“When you have people selling financial products that are directly linked to the larger financial sector and, therefore, pose systemic risk . . . they have to be regulated on an even playing field,” he said.

Harrington says he agrees regulators should keep a close eye on riskier product lines but not under the systemic designation, because the label could alter the fate of a company or even an industry. Deeming a firm as systemically important, he said, is tantamount to labeling it too big to fail, which creates an implied government guarantee that results in a competitive advantage over smaller companies.

“You achieve very little with this designation, but you end up over time declaring one or two insurance companies as special and therefore worthy of government support,” he said. “That could ultimately give them an advantage in selling annuities or other products.”

 
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