FSOC annual report testimony on Hill Tues., while FSOC eyeing Stage 2 nonbank, meets in closed session

The Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) will have a busy day Tuesday, June 24, as it meets in a closed, executive session and as Treasury Secretary Jack Lew testified before the House Financial Services Committee (HFSC)  on a hearing  entitled “The Annual Report of the Financial Stability Oversight Council.” Lew will be the only witness.

Although insurance is a subset of FSOC’s realm and of its annual report, there may be questions  from lawmakers on  the prudential regulation by the Federal Reserve of large insurers and asset managers, discussion on the application of domestic and proposed international capital standards and on FSOC’s internal business. HFSC passed measures last week on party line voting, to try and put the brakes on FSOC’s designation process and open it up to more federal officials and Congress.

MetLife is still in stage 3 of its potential designation as a nonbank systemically important financial institution (SIFI.) However, according to a readout of the March 27 FSOC meeting, which was closed, there was a discussion in late March on not only a stage potential designee but also a stage 2 financial company.

MetLife has already acknowledged it is in stage 3 and discussions are likely to continue Tuesday.  Of interest, the company, now stage 2 analysis, is perhaps an insurer or reinsurer.

Although the minutes did not disclose the sector, presentations on the unidentified  company were given by John Nolan, deputy director for Financial Stability in the Federal Insurance Office (FIO), who provided an update on the status of the ongoing analysis of the company. Randall Dodd, senior policy advisor at FIO, Todd Cohen, policy advisor at Treasury; and Scott Alvarez, General Counsel of the Federal Reserve, were available to answer questions on the company. However, the minutes do not reflect any presentation made by the office of the FSOC voting  member with Insurance Expertise, so it could be FIO’s and the Fed’s take on an asset manager with insurance holdings, or perhaps a large reinsurer.

The Financial Stability Board, in concert with the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS)  is coming out with its reinsurance global systemically important insurers (G-SIIs) around November of this year.  As far as domestics, Berkshire Hathaway could  possibly be among them because of its size, although the percentage of insurance as part of Berkshire Hathaway may not meet specific FSOC threshold material for insurance companies.

The annual report for 2014 again discussed again interest rate risk for insurance companies:

“Despite a significant rise in longer-term interest rates this past year, the insurance industry continued to report investment margins that were below historic averages,” the annual report of FSOC stated.

“If historically low interest rates persist, insurance companies could face a challenge generating investment returns that are sufficient to meet the cash flow demands of liabilities,” the report continued. Interest rates remained well below historical averages and continued to weigh on life insurance investment yields.

Legacy products in particular (including annuities, long-term care, and universal life insurance with secondary guarantees) have been less profitable in the current interest rate environment, as they were originally priced and sold under differing market conditions, as insurers have found out, the report noted.

The current low interest rate environment also may affect the use of captive reinsurance: the low rates affect the present value of insurers’ contract obligations (increasing the present values

of future obligations), and therefore may encourage use of reinsurance for insurance products with liability valuations that are interest-rate-sensitive

FSOC recommends that the Federal Insurance Office (FIO) and state insurance regulators continue to monitor and assess interest rate risk resulting from severe interest rate shocks.

FSOC also reported that Life insurance revenue from insurance and annuity products decreased to $583 billion in 2013 from the record $645 billion set in 2012.

Although  Expanded product distribution channels and a more favorable interest rate environment led to higher fixed annuity sales,  a number of one- time transactions and increased reinsurance cession overcame the improved fixed annuity sales and led to the decrease in total revenues.

Life insurers’ average portfolio yields continued to decline in 2013, but at a slower rate than in 2012, the report stated. Nonetheless, the life insurance sector’s net income rose 6.8% to $41 billion, a record high, benefitting from rising equity markets.

FSOC also delved into concerns regarding captive reinsurance. It pointed out that regulators and rating agencies have noted that the broad use of captive reinsurance by life insurers may result in regulatory capital ratios that potentially understate risk.

During times of financial market volatility when reserve and capital levels for some products should increase, an insurance company that uses captive reinsurance may not be required to hold higher reserves and capital. This could become a financial stability concern if a large, complex insurance organization were to experience financial distress,” the annual report stated.

The concerns have some offsets: The implementation of principles-based reserving (PBR) by the states  may eliminate the need to use captive reinsurance for the purpose of reducing reserves that are significantly higher than expected losses, according to the report.

The Federal Reserve  issued a “Supervision and Regulation Letter” (SRL)  in December 2013 concerning the effects of risk transfer activities on capital adequacy, which would apply to captive reinsurance risk transfer transactions for insurance companies it supervises when they become subject to the Federal Reserve’s risk-based capital framework.

The FIO is still monitoring both the role and impact of captives in the sector and the potential for regulatory improvements at the state level, as well.

Property/Casualty sector revenue from insurance products increased 3.9% to $544 billion in 2013, a record high.

Rates charged by insurers to policyholders increased moderately in most commercial lines of P/C business led by strong sales of workers’ compensation and demand for personal auto insurance. Net income increased to a record level of $70 billion, or an increase of 91.5% from 2012, as expenses and losses paid on claims declined and there were no major storms during the hurricane season in 2013, the annual report stated.

S&P questions G-SII merits while acknowledging uncertainty in outcome of designation

Standard & Poor’s  is asking whether the global systemically important  insurers (G-SIIs) designation’s costs outweighs it benefits and appears in its analysis to be sliding toward the answer of yes, at least for some.

Of course, the effects of the designation have not played out at all, yet, so anyone who analyses any effects couches their prognosis in terms of uncertainty.

“The merits of the G-SII designation for global financial stability are not clear, in our view, and may not outweigh its costs for insurers and their regulators,” stated Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Financial Services LLC in a June 3rd report on its global credit portal.

S&P said it concluded after some analysis that “ultimately, the net impact of the designation may be negative for some G-SIIs and positive for others. The picture will become clearer as the new regime takes shape and the G-SIIs take management actions to respond.”

S&P analysts considered the positive and the negative and did find potential for both, but ultimately questioned whether insurers pose a systemic risk like some of  the large banks have been found to do.

This sentiment, and the question analysts posed, whether naming certain insurers as G-SIIs enhances financial stability and warrants the resulting costs to insurers and their regulators, colored the report’s analysis.

In fact, the analysis suggest that the creation of G-SIIs could possibly destabilize parts of the industry itself if there is too much  regulatory focus on these largest, most interconnected global insurers while the rest of the industry goes its own way, in a way, less scrutinized.  “We further believe that the creation of G-SIIs could divert regulatory resources toward these entities while more risk accumulates at the non-G-SIIs,” the analysts said.

The analysts do suggest there is a place for a systemic risk scrutiny domestically, though: “We believe that systemic risk was more evident in insurance at a national, rather than global, level during the financial crisis, when U.S. bond and mortgage insurance and trade credit insurance in some European markets posed systemic concerns.

It may be that the FSB [G-20 Financial Stability Board]  would never have pursued the G-SII regime were it not for AIG’s failure, S&P analysts stated. It was “a failure that resulted, in our view, from its shadow banking activities, which other insurers largely avoided,” S& P said.

Potential identification of systemically risky/important  global reinsurers by the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS)  in concert with the FSB, is expected in November.

“The FSB has postponed the announcement of reinsurer G-SIIs twice, which may be indicative of differing views on the potential candidates,” S&P stated.

The IAIS is expected to deliver the basic capital requirement (BCR) n November, but S&P  believes significant later modifications are likely as work continues on the other elements,  including the higher loss absorbency for G-SIIs (by 2015). IAIS said that ComFrame field testing is progressing well, with many meetings taking place over the next month to analyze data and prepare for the next BCR consultation in July.

S&P says that although basic capital requirement, higher loss absorbency, and advocated global insurance capital standard won’t be “hard” capital tests that require insurers to act on deficiencies until 2019, it expects the development of these myriad capital standards to influence regulatory supervision before then.

The ratings agency questioned also this need for capital loadings for G-SIIs.

“It’s understandable for banks, where recent empirical evidence has shown what a failure can cost taxpayers…While insurers, including some large insurers, have failed in the past, their resolutions have generally come at limited cost to taxpayers, in our view…. In light of the lack of data on the cost of these resolutions in general and for taxpayers, it’s unclear to us how the IAIS will calibrate the G-SIIs’ capital loadings,” they stated.

S&P has taken no rating actions on insurers thus far as a direct consequence of a G-SII designation so far.

However, insurers should not expect a ratings boon from S&P for their global designations, at least:

“We anticipate that governments would play a role in resolving failing G-SIIs (and D-SIIs), but don’t see the same incentive for governments to provide capital support to the insurance sector. Accordingly, we factor no government support into insurers’ ratings unless they are government-owned,” S&P stated.

“In our view, the G-SIIs generally aren’t too big to be allowed to fail because we believe it’s possible to resolve their liabilities post-failure without disrupting the financial system and without the injection of taxpayers’ money. Capital injections generally aren’t necessary when resolving insurers because, relative to banks, they have low financial leverage, lower liquidity risk, low interdependency, and extensive use of subsidiaries (rather than branches). The infrequency of insurer bailouts historically bears this out,” the S&P analysts team stated in the research report.

Policy measures under consideration for G-SIIs include heightened oversight, resolution plans, and capital loadings to absorb potential losses.

The U.S. G-SIIs are Prudential Financial, AIG and  MetLife.

Domestic systemically important insurers (SIFIs), as designated by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC)  are expected to match up with these, according to S&P, with a MetLife designation coming down the pike. MetLife has been in Stage 3 of the FSOC review process for months.

S&P states that  heightened oversight is already a reality: AIG’s lead supervisor, the Fed, has already allocated a dedicated staff of nine to the task–and “colleges” of most of the G-SIIs’ main supervisors are already in place, S&P points out.

Insurers must submit detailed resolution plans to their group supervisor by July, for example.

The primary analyst for this S&P research report, which looks at the nine G-SIIs globally, is in London, with a team in New York, Frankfurt and Singapore.

Under Standard & Poor’s policies, only a Rating Committee can determine a Credit Rating Action (including a Credit Rating change, affirmation or withdrawal, Rating Outlook change, or CreditWatch action).

What do you think the overall effect will be on G-SIIs, or for that matter, U.S. insurance SIFIs?
AUthor: Liz Festa, June 5, 2014

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

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