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POLITICS: PennAve

MetLife in the dark as 'too big to fail' label looms

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Politics,Finance and Banking,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Federal Reserve,Jack Lew,Dodd Frank,Financial Markets,PoliticsToday

MetLife's fate could be decided in two days, and yet the insurer still doesn't know whether it will be declared officially too big to fail.

For more than a year, a regulatory super-group has investigated whether MetLife poses a systemic risk to the financial system if it fails, the way that insurer AIG did in the 2008 crisis.

But MetLife representative Chris Stern told the Washington Examiner that the life insurance company still doesn’t know whether the Financial Stability Oversight Council intends to label it too big to fail and subject it to extra regulation at its meeting next week.

The company could be facing higher capital standards, oversight from the Federal Reserve, and a requirement that it write its own "living will" to plan for the possibility of a bankruptcy.

The FSOC was created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law to monitor threats to the financial system as a whole, including ones from outside big Wall Street banks. Led by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and comprising the heads of the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and other major financial regulators, it has the power to name companies like Metlife “systemically important” and regulate them like big banks.

It is widely anticipated that it will do just that on Thursday, in a meeting that will include discussion of non-bank financial firms that are too big to fail. Minutes from a meeting in August revealed that the panel had completed compiling evidence on giving the “systemically important” designation to an unspecified firm, thought to be MetLife.

If the FSOC does move to apply the too-big-to-fail label to MetLife, it would only elicit more criticism from congressional Republicans, who have criticized the group for a lack of transparency.

The FSOC has “sort of had this shot-across-the-bow from Congress,” said Paul Kupiec, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, “but they might not listen.”

In May, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, asked for a moratorium on such designations until the regulators provide more information about how the designation process worked and what consequences it triggers.

In June, the committee upped the ante and passed a bill that would require a moratorium, with Hensarling saying that the FSOC “may very well be the nation’s least transparent federal entity.”

Some analysts disagree that the FSOC should slow the designation process. The Systemic Risk Council, a group of experts and former regulators led by former Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation chairwoman Sheila Bair and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, wrote a letter to the Financial Services Committee in June warning that the bill could “undermine [FSOC’s] ability to identify emerging risks in the financial system and perform the functions necessary to prevent crippling financial crises from happening in the future.”

Nevertheless, MetLife argues that in its case, being identified as too big to fail would be an error.

“The life insurance business did not cause the financial crisis,” MetLife CEO Steve Kandarian said in a speech at the outset of the FSOC’s attempts to label it too big to fail in 2013. Instead, Kandarian argued, MetLife’s business does not present the threat to the financial system that AIG’s massive swaps business did.

In a note on the FSOC’s deliberations, Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the right-leaning American Action Forum wrote that “MetLife just does not look like a financial threat, which raises an important lesson: to find a [systemically important firm], look at the activities of the entity, not the label (“insurance company”) that is attached to the business.”

Besides AIG, one other insurer — Prudential — was labeled systemically important in 2013, as was the General Electric Capital Corp.

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