A large midwestern insurance company plans to charter a thrift in a bold play to become a financial services supermarket.
Principal Financial Group, the 10th-largest U.S. life insurance company, confirmed it would submit applications by yearend to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Office of Thrift Supervision.
Principal would use its thrift charter to market credit cards, certificates of deposit, checking accounts, and other products through its 270 offices nationwide, said a spokeswoman for the Des Moines company.
The insurer said it wants to be the "financial services company of choice," supplying any service offered by its competitors. Principal already owns a mutual fund company, a broker-dealer, and a mortgage banking unit.
Observers said the move is the latest in a drive by financial services companies of all stripes to broaden their offerings.
"It's becoming the one-stop shop - that's what all these financial services companies are going for," said Ronald Glancz, a Washington-based regulatory lawyer.
Last year, for instance, a leading brokerage firm, Edward D. Jones & Co. of St. Louis, bought a Missouri thrift as a way of adding deposits, loans, and trust services to its product menu. Meanwhile, many banks are intensifying their push into insurance sales.
While insurance companies are prohibited by law from buying or starting banks, no such restriction applies to thrifts. And by buying or creating a stand-alone, or "unitary," thrift, parent companies can avoid regulation as bank holding companies.
Principal's move is not the first instance of an insurer seeking to build a banking business. Prudential Insurance Company of America, Newark, N.J., one of the largest U.S. insurers, operates a nonbank bank, Prudential Bank and Trust Co., Atlanta, which doesn't take deposits. Another Des Moines insurer, Amerus Life Insurance Co., operates a local thrift.
However, neither Prudential nor Amerus is using its charter to sell bank products nationwide.
Susan Houser, the spokeswoman for Principal, said the insurer had considered getting into banking for several years and had been weighing its options. Principal considered acquiring a thrift but found that strategy too expensive.
"This was a much less costly way of doing this," Ms. Houser said. "When you look at banks' prices," she said, they "either reflect a premium or the problems they've had."
She added that Principal also plans to offer banking services via personal computer and the Internet but has no intention of creating separate thrift branches.
Mr. Glancz predicted that Principal's thrift charter application would be easily approved, adding that regulators have virtually invited insurance companies to apply for thrift charters.
"Banks have tried to eat the lunch of insurance companies," he said. "And I think you're seeing the insurance industry waking up to that fact."
Principal already sells its mutual funds through banks and has a credit card marketed through MBNA Corp. It plans to market its own credit card through the new thrift but will initially continue existing bank agreements for credit cards and mutual funds.
"I think we have 90% of the spectrum covered," said Ms. Houser, "and this will round out our portfolio."
Michael Ancell, a bank analyst at Edward D. Jones, said a thrift charter could help many financial services companies attract customers leery of mutual funds and other risky investments.
"A lot of people won't put their money in non-FDIC-insured accounts," he said. "That's important with the large number of retirees and an aging population."
Kenneth Kehrer, a Princeton, N.J., consultant, said he believes technological advances could make it easier for insurers to get into banking inexpensively.
"Now, as we see the emergence of electronic distribution," he said, "we could see more players doing this."