LAS VEGAS Bankers are not about to leap into insurance underwriting just because financial reform law allows it.
We have entertained the idea of pursuing a partnership, said Robert J. Mittel, a senior vice president and head of sales at Dime Savings Banks insurance program. But underwriting is not really a priority for us right now.
Banking companies have been in the spotlight since the passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in January as observers wait for the next big merger between a bank and insurance company.
But they may have to keep waiting if Mr. Mittel and other bankers at a panel discussion last week are representative of the industry. Panelist at the on financial reform at the 12th annual meeting of the Financial Institutions Insurance Association said that they are not prepared to take on the risk of underwriting, and that the low share prices of most insurance companies weigh against acquiring them at least for now.
Never say never, said Barbara P. Johnson, president of the insurance unit at Peoples Bank, Bridgeport, Connecticut. However, at Peoples there are currently no plans to explore insurance underwriting, she said.
David L. Holton, president of Wachovia Insurance Services, Wachovia Corp.s insurance unit, said the banking company wants to stay focused on insurance distribution.
Every second we would spend on exploring underwriting is time we could spend on expanding our insurance distribution, he said.
Banks that would like to purchase an insurance company face some obstacles, said Richard H. Klovstad, head of Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Groups insurance division.
Not least are the lower valuations currently placed on insurers, which Mr. Klovstad described as dramatically different to those afforded banking companies.
If you buy a business selling at six-times earnings and youre at 12 times earnings, your valuation is going to drift somewhere between, he said.
Still, Mr. Klovstad said there are some synergies for banks and insurers. For example life insurance has proven popular with bank customers.
And banks would not come to underwriting cold, since some already dabble, he said.
PNC participates in underwriting fixed annuities through a complicated offshore reinsurance process permitted under Regulation-K of the Federal Reserve Act, he said.
However, the level of risk undertaken by banks in reinsurance of products such as fixed annuities and mortgage insurance is minimal, said Jeremiah J. Reen Jr., president of Winklevoss, a Greenwich, Conn. consultant.
The risk on mortgage insurance diminishes with time as the value of the property increases, Mr. Reen said.
To enter into the kind of full-scale underwriting seen at insurers involves a whole different kind of risk, he said.