Financial Instability Council

The Financial Instability Council- More Beltway Madness

Financial Instability Council

Red Tape- More Rules Where None Are Needed

This week brings an important editorial from the Wall Street Journal on the continued overreaching and regulatory creep oozing out of Washington.

Today’s editorial, perfectly titled “The Financial Instability Council” discusses the bass-ackwards attempts of power hungry legislators  to roll perfectly stable insurance companies up in a regulatory coffin and sink consumers with higher premiums to pay for this added compliance nightmare.

Rock solid insurers Met Life and Prudential are at risk of being tarred with the regulatory stigma of “Too Big To Fail.  Thankfully, they are valiantly fighting this mess.  Let’s hope the win, and write your representatives to fight this off.

“Too Big To Fail” has a definite meaning, and Dante is working on a special 10th Circle for firms labeled this way.  Banks known as “Too Big To Fail” were of course all overseen by the Treasury’s Office of Thrift Supervision up thru and including the financial crisis… meaning, they were under the watchful eye of the Treasury as the financial crisis unfolded, and as the US Taxpayer was thrust into the fire to backstop the mess…

As the Journal states,

“So of course Treasury’s solution is to expand federal regulation to the businesses that weren’t overseen by the department and didn’t fail.  Makes perfect Beltway sense.”

Firms now deemed as ‘systemic risks’ are saddled with added regulation and capital requirements.

“Along with the “systemic” designation comes regulation that was created for banks, not for insurance companies, and that will create problems for taxpayers and policyholders. Any firm dubbed “systemically important” will be regulated by the Federal Reserve. This will likely mean heavy new capital requirements designed to prevent problems that generally don’t exist at an insurer.”

Another great quote from the article is this:

It’s a giant and counterproductive leap to conclude that the insurance business presents a systemic risk to the financial system.

Read the whole piece online HERE and be sure to write your representatives and senators to resist this continued counterproductive bureaucratic expansion.  The body of the article is below:

There’s finally a healthy discussion in Washington about how to end too-big-to-fail banks. But before the government can start getting rid of taxpayer-backed behemoths, it first has to stop creating them.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank law classified all banks with more than $50 billion in assets as systemically important, and the federal Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) is considering which non-banks should also be deemed too big to fail. Last year the board of regulators slapped the systemic tag on eight “financial market utilities,” including clearinghouses, which means taxpayers now stand behind derivatives trading. Congratulations.

And last week the council, chaired by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, declared that GE Capital, the finance arm of General Electric, GE -0.85% and AIG are also officially important. Now the council is trying to designate insurer Prudential as systemic, and perhaps MetLife MET -0.99% too.

GE Capital was rescued in the 2008 panic and thus deserves the systemic label. AIG seems to welcome the designation, perhaps because its current mix of businesses means that it will face a lighter regulatory burden than some competitors. But taxpayers should be cheered to learn that Prudential and MetLife are resisting membership in the too-big-to-fail club, and for good reason. It’s a giant and counterproductive leap to conclude that the insurance business presents a systemic risk to the financial system.

AIG was a giant insurer when it failed, but its disastrous housing bets largely occurred outside its traditional insurance businesses, which have always been regulated by the states. The company’s catastrophic wagers on the mortgage market were overseen by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Thrift Supervision. So of course Treasury’s solution is to expand federal regulation to the businesses that weren’t overseen by the department and didn’t fail. Makes perfect Beltway sense.

But this logic should give taxpayers pause. Along with the “systemic” designation comes regulation that was created for banks, not for insurance companies, and that will create problems for taxpayers and policyholders. Any firm dubbed “systemically important” will be regulated by the Federal Reserve. This will likely mean heavy new capital requirements designed to prevent problems that generally don’t exist at an insurer.

Banks accept short-term liabilities in the form of deposits and use them to fund long-term loans. This “maturity transformation” has wonderful economic benefits but carries the risk of failure if lots of depositors suddenly want to withdraw their funds. To address this risk, banks are required to maintain capital cushions and liquidity to meet deposit withdrawals that can occur at any time.

Insurers, by contrast, match long-term liabilities with long-term assets. Premiums to cover some event likely to occur decades in the future are invested in assets of a similar duration. There is little risk of a “run on the bank” because policyholders, unlike depositors, typically cannot demand the face value of their policies in cash. Tornadoes, car accidents and terminal cancer do occur, but they don’t occur everywhere at once, and they are not triggered by a panic in financial markets.

Insurers can fail, but since customers cannot immediately demand their money the way bank depositors can, the failures tend to play out slowly over many years. States also typically require insurers to contribute to a fund to make up for the shortfall if one of them fails and its assets and liabilities don’t match. Without the same immediate demands for cash as at a bank that’s heading south, there is less risk of an asset fire sale that could roil markets.

Treating insurers like banks would also raise costs substantially at insurers as they scramble to comply with the new burdens. This means higher premiums for customers. MetLife hired consultant Oliver Wyman to calculate the consumer costs of bank regulation if applied to several insurers that could potentially fall under federal bank rules. The industrywide estimate: $5 billion to $8 billion a year.

If companies can’t pass along these higher costs to customers and stay competitive, they are likely to exit the business, especially the capital-intensive life insurance market. That would mean less competition.

The other big risk is that the systemic risk designation could turn out to be self-fulfilling. If an insurer has to accept bank regulation, it might as well consider expanding into bank businesses. If it has to pay the regulatory costs of holding short-term liabilities, then the natural next step is to consider relying more on short-term funding, which almost everyone agrees was a key vulnerability leading into the 2008 crisis. Insurers may become riskier institutions than they now are, which means more risks for taxpayers.

This is no idle fear because the only certainty about financial regulation is that it never prevents the next crisis. Yet in order to reinforce the illusion of effective regulation, and vindicate the folly of Dodd-Frank, regulators are about to force insurance companies and customers who didn’t cause the last crisis to pay more while encouraging firms to pursue riskier business thanks to an implied federal backstop. They should have called it the Financial Instability Council.

 

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