Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took a low-key approach Tuesday to talking about how he might handle regulation of life insurers that could, possibly, be “too big to fail.”
He gave answers that were much shorter than questions when Republicans on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs asked him about the federal process for identifying companies as “systemically important financial institutions” (SIFIs), or as entities other than banks that are so big, and so important, that their failure could knock down the U.S. financial system.
Some observers have suggested the U.S. SIFI process, and related processes in Europe and elsewhere, contributed to MetLife Inc.’s recent decision to spin Brighthouse Financial Inc. off as a separate company, and to pressure on other insurers to break up or realign their own operations.
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Mnuchin, who was nominated to his post by President Donald Trump, avoided saying much about the SIFI designation process, but he expressed support for the general idea of giving companies more information about how the process works.
“I do believe there should be better transparency,” Mnuchin said.
Systemically Important Financial Institutions (SIFIs)
Strategies for regulating big insurers came up at a hearing organized by the Senate Banking Committee. The committee held the hearing to review the Financial Stability Oversight Council’s (FSOC’s) latest annual report on financial institutions, and on possible threats to the U.S. financial system.
Congress created FSOC when it drafted the Dodd-Frank Act, in an effort to give federal policymakers information and regulatory tools that could help them prevent a repeat of the Great Recession.
FSOC set up a system for designating some companies as SIFIs, or entities in need of extra attention because their problems could shake the U.S. financial system. FSOC said it wanted to establish a flexible SIFI designation process, to keep companies from making minor changes to avoid being designated as SIFIs.
The Financial Stability Board, an international regulatory group based in Basel, Switzerland, came up with a separate system for designating companies as “global systemically important financial institutions,” or G-SIFIs.
Life insurers have complained that FSOC’s SIFI designation process has been unfair and hard to understand, and that complying with SIFI-related requirements has been difficult and expensive.
FSOC designated American International Group Inc., MetLife Inc. and Prudential Financial Inc. as SIFIs. AIG and MetLife have already escaped from SIFI status. Observers expect FSOC to free Prudential from SIFI status soon.
Did FSOC Rig Its SIFI Designation Process?
At the Senate Banking hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told Mnuchin that the SIFI designation process was clearly unfair. Cotton said that, under former President Barack Obama, two top members of FSOC, the Treasury secretary and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, had quietly agreed to let the Financial Stability Board designate MetLife and Prudential as G-SIFIs months before the U.S. FSOC had designated MetLife and Prudential as U.S. SIFIs.
The timing shows that FSOC’s SIFI designation process was biased against MetLife and Prudential, Cotton said.
“Do you believe that this decision was simply a show trial by the FSOC?” Cotton asked Mnuchin.
The United States should be governed by its citizens, not by “unelected experts at Swiss ski resorts,” Cotton said.