The nation's second-largest insurance company has set its sights on owning a bank.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. wants to use some of the proceeds of a planned initial public offering to buy a commercial banking company, chairman and chief executive officer Robert H. Benmosche said Monday. The company disclosed Sunday that it intends to go public next year, a move that analysts said could raise $14 billion to $20 billion. The process is expected to take a year.
Owning a bank appeals to MetLife because it would give the company new channels for selling its life insurance, annuities, and other retail insurance offerings, plus enable it to offer retail banking products to its 12 million customers, Mr. Benmosche said.
"A MetLife guarantee is good, but it isn't quite as good as federal deposit bank insurance," Mr. Benmosche said. "We think that some customers will want federally insured products and a bank would provide that."
MetLife's plan, though still in the formative stage, underscores the financial services industry's growing fascination with convergence- combinations of securities, insurance, and banking companies that, until recently, were unthinkable.
"This what the marketplace is demanding," said Glen Milesko, president of Banc One Insurance Group, a unit of Bank One Corp., Chicago. "Everybody, bankers and insurers, is looking to fill out products and distribution." But, he said, convergence won't take off until Congress "validates" what is happening in the market.
"People are looking for more complete solutions to their financial services," said Colin Devine, who tracks the insurance industry for Salomon Smith Barney Inc., a Citigroup subsidiary. "Would a bank be part of it? Yes."
The Oct. 8 merger between Travelers Group and Citicorp that created Citigroup has re-ignited discussions about bringing together institutions that could complement each other and thus create cross-selling opportunities. Large, mutual insurance companies like MetLife that decide to convert to stock ownership could be a powerful force in transforming the financial services landscape.
Mr. Benmosche appears to be the first insurance company chief to speak publicly of buying a commercial bank since the Citigroup deal closed. That deal still faces some legal hurdles, because federal law does not allow banks to combine with insurance underwriters. Mr. Benmosche said he was not inclined to follow in Citigroup's footsteps until the law is clearer.
Other insurers who have expressed interest in offering retail banking and trust services are pursuing this goal by obtaining thrift charters. But Mr. Benmosche said that as he sees it, that would entail starting a bank from scratch, a task he does not relish. "We are not interested in building a bank," he said.
Mr. Benmosche wouldn't identify possible targets, saying only that such a bank "would have to find an advantage in taking our name." The company would probably name its bank subsidiary MetLife Bank, he said.
He also declined to be specific about what size bank he would like to buy. However, he said, "There are only three nationwide banks. We are talking about banks that are a little smaller and don't have a truly national name."
One insurance analyst argued that such a proposition might prove compelling for a bank with big aspirations.
"Met Life has become one of the most powerful brand names in America," said Mr. Devine of Salomon Smith Barney.
But MetLife would face some limitations in its search for a partner.
"Even in a best-case scenario, the market would only value them at around $20 billion," said Robert Stein, national director of financial services, Ernst & Young. "And all the larger regional banks have market capitalizations that are higher than that."
Instead, he said, they should expect to acquire a second-tier regional bank, perhaps an institution that ranks in the top 100 rather than the top 50 among commercial bank companies.
"The market caps of the strong regional banks tend to double the respective market caps of even the larger insurers," Mr. Stein said. "So a company like Met Life will have to leverage a smaller institution."