General Electric on Thursday asked federal regulators to lift the “too big to fail” label on its lending unit, allowing the firm to escape the tougher government oversight put in place following the 2008 financial crisis.
Regulators have required companies such as GE Capital to set aside a bigger financial cushion and operate with other safeguards to protect taxpayers if the businesses run into financial trouble. Now, GE argues, those restrictions are no longer necessary.
The request comes just a day after MetLife won a crucial ruling Wednesday challenging a government panel’s decision that it too was too big to fail. The judge’s ruling in that federal case now casts doubt on the panel’s power to rule on GE’s application.
A touchstone U.S. company since its founding in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1892, GE built up its lending arm prior to the 2008 financial crisis. But since the meltdown, it has aggressively turned away from the financial businesses, including offering credit cards, that attracted federal scrutiny. Instead, GE is now positioning itself as an industrial company that makes and finances airplane engines, trains and other massive manufacturing equipment.
As part of that effort, the total assets of the company’s GE Capital unit have fallen 52 percent since 2012 from $549 billion to about $265 billion now. Once nearly 60 percent of the company’s profits, that amount is expected to shrink to 10 percent by 2017.
“GE Capital today is smaller, simpler and less interconnected with the U.S. financial system,” the company said in a filing to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a government panel run by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
In a statement, a Treasury Department spokesman did not specifically address GE’s application but said “the council welcomes the opportunity to evaluate developments at any designated nonbank financial company and their potential effect on financial stability.”
GE’s application is likely to bring greater scrutiny to government efforts to identify financial firms, outside of banks, that could pose a threat to the economy. The government turned its attention to such firms after the massive insurance company AIG nearly collapsed in 2008 and required a $182 billion taxpayer bailout. Congress passes a series of financial reforms known as Dodd Frank, a reference to the two senators who introduced the legislation.
As part of that effort, the 10-member FSOC was formed. It eventually labeled four firms — AIG, Prudential, General Electric’s financing arm and MetLife — as “systemically important financial institutions,” subjecting them to tougher government rules.
But MetLife, the large insurance company, has fought the label from the beginning. It argues that FSOC did not properly assess the insurer’s financial strength and that it does not engage in the type of risky behavior that could rattle the economy. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer agreed in a two-page ruling.
The decision is “really potentially damaging to the framework Dodd Frank set up to oversee nonfinancial institutions,” said Marcus Stanley, policy director for Americans for Financial Reform.
If the ruling is upheld, “FSOC would have a very hard time designating anybody in the future, even when they truly do pose risk to the financial system,” he said.
The Treasury Department, which can appeal the decision, has said it stands by its designation of MetLife as a “systemically important” company.
The MetLife decision has raised the prospect that other companies currently designated “too big to fail” could fight the label. In a statement, Prudential said, “We continuously review developments that impact our company, and we are evaluating what is in the best interests of the company and our stakeholders.”
Peter Hancock, chief executive of AIG, said Thursday on the cable business channel CNBC that he was “somewhat surprised” by the court ruling. Asked if AIG would apply to have the additional federal scrutiny lifted, Hancock said, “It certainly opens that opportunity, but I think it’s something we want to reserve judgment to see how the rules ultimately get written and how they get interpreted by the regulators.”
The court ruling is also likely to embolden Republicans in Congress who have argued that Dodd Frank went too far, including granting the FSOC too much power. Meanwhile, some Democrats, including presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), have called for even stronger measures to rein in the financial industry.