Yes, the book on MetLife is closed; vote on SIFI desgination next step

The Financial Stability Oversight Council voted Aug. 19 unanimously to close the evidentiary record on a what it says is a nonbank financial company, which we shall refer to as MetLife.
MetLife has been in Stage 3 of the review process for potential designation as a systemically risky financial institution (SIFI) for over a year.
Closing the books is the next step before the FSOC gathers in person or by phone to vote to potentially designate the largest U.S. life insurance company a SIFI, as it has for AIG, GE Capital and Prudential Financial, the second-largest U.S. life insurer. Prudential contested its proposed designation in an appeal, lost its bid and finally accepted it in lieu of a further battle and a higher standard of proof in the courts.
MetLife has long argued that it is not a SIFI, and it will be of interest to many to see whether the vote is unanimous or not.
The vote for Prudential was broken by three dissents, two from voting members Roy Woodall, the appointed independent member with insurance expertise, and Edward DeMarco, then acting chair of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and one from the representative from the state regulators, Missouri Insurance Director John Huff. The Securuties and Exchange Commission (SEC) had abstained in light of the recent Mary Jo White appointment.
When MetLife reached Stage 3 of the FSOC’s designation process in mid-July 2013, CEO Steven Kandarian stated that,
“I do not believe that MetLife is a systemically important financial institution. The Dodd-Frank Act defines a SIFI as a company whose failure ‘could pose a threat to the financial stability of the United States.’ Not only does exposure to MetLife not threaten the financial system, but I cannot think of a single firm that would be threatened by its exposure to MetLife.”

He argued against the scenario that the FSOC in large used that summer to finally designate Prudential, a run on the bank scenario.

“The life insurance industry is a source of financial stability. Even during periods of financial stress, the long-term nature of our liabilities insulates us against bank-like ‘runs’ and the need to sell off assets,” Kandarian said July 16, 2013.
“If only a handful of large life insurers are named SIFIs and subjected to capital rules designed for banks, our ability to issue guarantees would be constrained. We would have to raise the price of the products we offer, reduce the amount of risk we take on, or stop offering certain products altogether.”
MetLife is already a global systemically important insurer, as designated by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) after a review by the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS), as are AIG and Prudential.
The FSOC said in its resolution approving the completion of the record that “the nonbank financial company” has submitted written materials and information to the Council and the Office of Financial Research (OFR) and the staffs of the Council members and their agencies have analyzed such materials and information. The council member agencies are led by the Treasury Secretary or his designee. Including him, there are 10 voting members. They are listed here, by agency: http://www.treasury.gov/initiatives/fsoc/about/council/Pages/default.aspx
The OFR was planning on hiring more insurance expertise at one point, in the spring.

Is FSOC exploring other options besides SIFI designations?

In a week when U.S. insurers flocked to testify or follow or promote Congressional hearings addressing easing Dodd Frank’s federal government powers strictures on insurance company oversight, U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for Domestic Finance Mary Miller opened the door to policy options for review of industries or companies under review for systemic risk.

But is it enough to allow insurers through? Or, has that door shut?

The Treasury Secretary chairs the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) that reviews threats to stability and designates financial institutions like Prudential Financial and AIG as systemically risky (SIFIs.) If FSOC identifies risks posed by asset managers or their activities that pose a threat to financial stability, it has a number of policy options, Miller stated during an FSOC-hosted conference on the asset management industry May 19.

These options include highlighting potential emerging threats in its annual reports to Congress, making recommendations to existing primary regulators to apply heightened standards and safeguards, and, of course, the SIFI-label: designating individual firms on a company-specific basis.

“If we identify risks that require action, we will seek to deploy the most appropriate remedy,” Miller stated in her remarks. However, “it is possible that at the end of this comprehensive review, the Council may choose to take no action,” she allowed.

Options seen as less radical than a SIFI designation which subjects  a company to enhanced (to put it mildly) prudential supervision under the Federal Reserve Board’s regime were previously raised in the dissent of then-acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Edward DeMarco, to the FSOC’s 7-2 vote on Prudential’s SIFI designation.

“To the extent that the Council has concerns about the potential for runs on standard products and existing regulatory scrutiny, those concerns would be better addressed by tools other than designation, such as the Council’s Section 120 authority,” DeMarco wrote in September in his dissent. Section 120 holds that FSOC may provide for more stringent regulation of a financial activity by issuing recommendations to the primary financial regulatory agencies to apply new or heightened standards and safeguards, including standards enumerated in section 115, for a financial activity or practice conducted by bank holding companies or nonbank financial companies under their respective jurisdictions, instead of blanketing the company itself with a SIFI designation.

FSOC’s plunge into the intense review of the asset management industry coupled with this apparent new tack doesn’t mean that MetLife is off the hook as a future SIFI, though, even though MetLife is a huge asset manager already.

The New York insurer, and one-time bank holding company, has been under Stage 3 review since mid-July 2013, likely the longest Stage 3 review thus far for a company.

If MetLife were cited as a SIFI on the same basis as Prudential, beginning with a distressed company and a run-on-the-bank by millions of policyholders and the ensuing contagion scenario, the oft-cited dissent from FSOC insurance expert Roy Woodall would probably be similar, which may be unpalatable to Treasury, even if the votes are there to designate MetLife.

At a hearing also this week on FSOC designations as a possible danger to the U.S. financial system, Woodall’s statement that FSOC’s “underlying analysis utilizes scenarios that are antithetical to a fundamental and seasoned understanding of the business of insurance, the insurance regulatory environment, and the state insurance company resolution and guaranty fund systems,” was quoted by Eugene Scalia of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Congressional testimony May 20.

Treasury probably wants to avoid listening to, over and over again refrains similar to, “the designation of Prudential purports to be based on a risk assessment, but a risk analysis that assesses neither the probability nor the magnitude of the event is not a risk assessment at all,” as stated by as Scalia in the Tuesday House Financial Services  hearing.

Also this week, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, called on FSOC to “cease and desist ” SIFI designations until it gets questions answered, and many are trying to push for greater FSOC transparency, so the FSOC bloom is off the rose, for now.

“Many think it odd that FSOC has chosen insurance companies and asset managers as targets for SIFI designation when there are others that pose far greater risks to financial stability.  Insurance companies are heavily regulated at the state level, and asset managers operate with little leverage. And since they manage someone else’s funds, it is almost inconceivable that an asset manager’s failure could cause systemic risk,” Hensarling stated.  

Treasury’s Miller also broached the  subject of the work of the Financial Stability Board (FSB) in ongoing work regarding the identification of global systemically important financial institutions. MetLife has already been identified as a global systemically important insurer (G-SII) by the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS), under the direction of the FSB, and some on Congress have expressed concern that a foreign body that is not a regulator is somehow directing domestic policy on U.S. capital and other standards. The NAIC, the state insurance regulators,  think the FSB mandate is so powerful, they want to be part of the group or its discussions.

Miller took the opportunity to try and allay these concerns.

“While the FSB and the Council have a shared objective of promoting financial stability, it bears emphasizing that the domestic and international processes are entirely independent.  In its work, the Council adheres to the standard and considerations for designations that are listed in the Dodd-Frank Act and in the Council’s public guidance,” Miller stated.

The Council is the only authority that can designate an entity for Federal Reserve Board supervision and enhanced prudential standards,” she stressed.

Concerns about dealing with so-called bank-centric capital standards themselves also had another airing when the Housing and Insurance Subcommittee of the Committee on Financial Services heard testimony on H.R. 4510, the legislative fix to the Collins Amendment in Dodd Frank that would free Federal Reserve-supervised insurers from preparing statements in accordance with GAAP and their assets and liabilities from the minimum leverage capital requirements and risk-based capital requirements required under Sen. Susan Collins’, R- Maine, now infamous Section 171.

 

Author: Liz Festa, in Washington, May 21, 2014