WASHINGTON The Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday kicked off the first of several hearings to be held this week on the insurance industry, as companies brace for heightened oversight under the Dodd-Frank Act and other efforts.
Lawmakers pressed regulators for details about international work to supervise the industry by several global councils, as well as domestic efforts by the Federal Reserve to establish new capital rules for insurance companies.
Below we offer three takeaways from the hearing, ahead of further discussions in the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday and the Senate banking panel's securities, insurance and investment subcommittee on Thursday.
Lawmakers are pushing a bipartisan bill aimed at making international insurance meetings more transparent.
Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced legislation Monday afternoon ahead of efforts to craft international insurance standards that some worry could be detrimental to the U.S. system, which is based on a network of state rules.
The International Insurance Capital Standards Accountability Act would require the Fed to create an insurance policy advisory committee on international capital standards and mandate that the Fed and Treasury Department submit an annual report to Congress on the activities at the International Association of Insurance Supervisors and the Financial Stability Board. Insurance regulators would also have to complete a study on the impact of any international proposal on U.S. consumers and would be advised to support greater transparency at IAIS working groups and meetings when possible.
"What we're trying to do with this effort is to make sure the Federal Reserve and the Treasury provide Congress with an annual report and testimony on their activities within these forums, especially the international insurance forum," Heller said Tuesday. "What we really want is to ensure the Federal Reserve and the Treasury study and report to U.S. consumers and the market before they enter into international capital standards."
Chairman Shelby is also signaling an interest in carefully watching international agreements on insurance standards.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., leader of the banking panel, suggested he's concerned with how domestic regulators will work to apply international standards down the line.
"When it comes to insurance, our regulators should acknowledge that the U.S. insurance industry is structured and operates differently than its European counterparts," he said in his opening statement. "Our representatives to these international discussions must ensure that their positions, and especially any resulting agreements, recognize these differences and do not disadvantage U.S. companies."
He told reporters after the hearing that the committee will continue to examine the bill by Tester and Heller, as well as insurance issues more generally. He didn't indicate whether the panel plans to include insurance reforms in a pending regulatory relief bill that the committee is scheduled to vote on next month.
"We'll look at it and evaluate it," he said of the proposed insurance legislation.
One issue Shelby noted during the hearing is that insurers hold long-term assets to match their long-term liabilities, and that "day-to-day fluctuations of those assets through a capital regime could create harmful volatility and inaccurately measure" stability.
Mark Van Der Weide, deputy director of the Fed's division of banking supervision and regulation, agreed that regulators would need to ensure that any international agreements fit with the U.S. model for insurers.
"Different insurance regulators and supervisors around the world treat these assets differently. So this is an issue that's going to be front and center in our international debates," he said. "We want to make sure we've got a capital regime that does work for the economics of the U.S. insurance market."
Shelby also pressed witnesses about the Financial Stability Oversight Council's process for designating insurance companies as systemically important, and the extent to which that evaluation follows FSB decision-making. The banking panel is expected to take up the issue in more detail on Thursday at the subcommittee hearing on "Examining Insurance Capital Rules and the FSOC Process."
The Fed is mum on a timeline for development of its capital standards for insurers.
Regulators said they were set to move forward with new capital standards for insurance companies under Dodd-Frank after Congress approved a tweak to the law last year allowing the Fed to treat insurers differently than banks. But Van Der Weide, the Fed's representative, offered little in terms of a forecast Tuesday on when to expect new rules.
"We're in the information collection and analysis phase. So we're engaging heavily with a variety of insurance stakeholders in the United States, including individual insurance firms, their trade associations and also interacting with insurance supervisors state insurance supervisors and foreign as well, to get their views on the best way for us to go," he said.
He added: "The U.S. insurance industry is pretty intensely heterogeneous and the 17 firms that we supervise are also intensely heterogeneous, so we need to devise a regulatory capital framework that works for life insurers, for property casualty insurers, for mutuals, non-mutuals, for systemically important financial institutions and the smaller firms."