WASHINGTON The Financial Stability Oversight Council moved a step closer Thursday to identifying MetLife as the fourth nonbank firm viewed by regulators as a systemic threat.
In a brief synopsis of the FSOC's closed-door meeting, the Treasury Department said the panel had voted unanimously with one member voting "present" to propose an unnamed company's designation as a "systemically important financial institution." In a separate statement, MetLife confirmed that it was the identified firm. The FSOC names firms publicly only after a SIFI designation becomes final.
It was not immediately clear whether MetLife would take any of the formal steps authorized by the Dodd-Frank Act to appeal the decision. But in the company's statement, chairman and chief executive Steven A. Kandarian disputed the council's finding.
"MetLife strongly disagrees with the Financial Stability Oversight Council's preliminary designation of MetLife as a SIFI," Kandarian said. "MetLife is not systemically important under the Dodd-Frank Act criteria. In fact, MetLife has served as a source of financial strength and stability during times of economic distress, including the 2008 financial crisis." Later, he added, "MetLife is not ruling out any of the available remedies under Dodd-Frank to contest a SIFI designation."
Speculation had been building for weeks that the council, which is chaired by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, was on the verge of designating MetLife. Three nonbank companies American International Group, Prudential Financial and GE Capital have received the SIFI label so far after the council was created under Dodd-Frank. A designation by the council subjects the firm to more bank-like supervision from the Federal Reserve Board. (Technically, 11 firms have been named SIFIs, including eight "financial market utilities.")
But a proposed designation still does not make the FSOC's decision final. Once the council votes by two-thirds majority to propose naming a firm, the company has 30 days to request a hearing to oppose its designation. The council then has 30 days to hold the hearing. Another two-thirds majority vote is then required to complete the designation process.
If designated, MetLife would become the third insurer after Prudential and AIG were named to the list.
But a lot is still up in the air about how nonbank firms targeted by the FSOC, including insurance companies, are to be regulated by the Fed.
A provision in Dodd-Frank that was championed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, imposes a universal floor under minimum capital levels required for both banks and nonbanks. Yet several financial institutions argue the Fed has authority to vary capital standards for SIFIs by their respective industry, while officials at the central bank say it lacks such authority. A bipartisan bill pending in Congress would clarify that the Fed can distinguish between how it applies capital rules to banks and how they are applied to insurance companies. The legislation has passed the Senate but is still pending before the House.
The proposed designation drew an immediate reaction as well as criticism from lawmakers.
"This action by the FSOC underscores the need for a quick, clean vote on the Insurance Capital Standards Clarification Act, which would allow the Fed to write proper capital standards for large life insurers," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a statement.
Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., attempted to turn the spotlight on the FSOC's process for designating firms, saying the panel was making "politically motivated decisions to expand the Fed's power with little-to-no real-world analysis."
"Today's irresponsible and inappropriate designation of another U.S. business as too-big-to-fail only strengthens my resolve to reform the out-of-control FSOC," he said in a press release.
Kandarian said subjecting insurers to the same capital regime applied to banks would hurt his industry.
"Imposing bank-centric capital rules on life insurance companies will make it more difficult for Americans to buy products that help protect their financial futures," he said in the statement. "At a time when government social safety nets are under increasing pressure and corporate pensions are disappearing, the goal of public policy should be to preserve and encourage competitively priced financial protection for consumers."
Meanwhile, Treasury said the council had also discussed at its meeting the recent assessments by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Reserve Board of resolution plans for large bank holding companies, as well as the FSOC's ongoing review of the asset management industry.