I recently sat with Nick Gerhart to discuss the regulatory environment for U.S. insurance carriers. Nick offers a broad perspective on regulation based on his experience: After roles at two different carriers, Nick served as Iowa insurance commissioner and currently is chief administrative officer at Farm Bureau Financial Services.
Nick is recognized as a thought leader for innovation and is regularly called on to speak and moderate at insurtech conferences and events. During our discussion, Nick described the foundation for the state-based regulatory environment, the advantages and challenges of decentralized oversight and how the system is adapting in light of innovation.
This is the second of a three-part series. The first part focused on the regulatory framework insurers face. In this second part, Nick provides the regulator’s perspective, with a focus on the goals and tactics of the commissioner’s office. Finally, in the third installment, we will discuss the best practices of insurers in compliance reporting.
In this conversation, we covered the tactics and process of regulation. In particular, Nick described the interactions – routine and targeted – between career and commissioner.
How is a commissioner’s office organized?
As I mentioned, the state of Iowa has a financial bureau and a market bureau. Within the market bureau is a fraud bureau. In addition, there is a securities bureau and regulated industries bureau.
As commissioner, you have to rely on your staff. In Iowa, each analyst has 10 to 12 companies to cover for a first-level review. We have great people in the state of Iowa, and we had a process for elevating issues. So, if they detected an issue, they would raise it pretty quickly. My goal was “no surprises.”
See also: Talking Insurtech With Regulators
Analysts develop a deep understanding of the companies they supervise. We were fortunate, as we had a lot of people who had been there a long time. I would often joke that some of the people in the division knew the company as well as the people within the company because, in a way, they grew up together.
What are the touchpoints between a carrier and a regulator?
It really varies based on the size of the carrier, to be honest with you. The larger, more complex groups are going to have more touchpoints. Some of the larger companies would come in every quarter to present financials, for instance. On the other hand, you might only see the smaller carriers at a conference. So, it really varies based on the size of the organization and issues within them.
We also have other opportunities to interact, as well. For example, there are the NAIC meetings: three every year, including regulators and a number of companies, and there is often open dialogue between consumers, companies and regulators at those meetings.
How do you stay current with a carrier’s operations?
On the financial solvency side, you get to know a lot of these companies very well – reviewing quarterly blanks, annual blanks and financials. Also, every five years, you do a deep dive exam into these companies on the financial side, which is very cumbersome and, some would argue, burdensome. But, that’s why the system works.
It’s important to remember that these companies are not static – you don’t just put the information in a file or in a drawer and forget about it. They’re more like living and breathing entities, unique and changing and, we hope, always getting better. One tool that regulators use to understand the risks of the larger groups is the ORSA. That provides a deep review of the carrier’s risk and is a very powerful tool for insurance regulators.
So, the regulators approach each company uniquely?
To some degree, yes. I’ve always said: “If you’ve seen one ORSA, you’ve seen one ORSA. If you’ve examined one insurance company, you’ve examined one insurance company.”
They might all have a lot of similar issues, but they all have different issues, as well. Regulators need to regulate on risk basis. A number of factors such as size, market and product could lead you to a different approach. Due to resource constraints, it is important to regulate accordingly.
In terms of the reporting that comes through, with respect to MCAS [Market Conduct Annual Statement], quarterly, annual, various data calls, how does that work?
Those are all electronic now. It used to be paper-based and very laborious and time-intensive. Now, you get on your computer, and it’s just there. This is really a necessity based on the number of companies we regulate and the amount of data.
How do you handle and evaluate such a large quantity of information?
You can’t really have a formulaic, prescriptive approach; it’s got to be risk-based.
What I mean by this is you’re really starting to look for trends and outliers. You tranche it out by line of business, or size of organization, etc. It’s more of trend analysis in the context of what is happening in the marketplace. You can’t say “we’re always going to look for one way to do it.” As you know, things trend differently: from year-to-year or quarter-to-quarter.
If you see an anomaly, you start with context. If long-term care complaints spike, it might be simply because rates have increased – which, incidentally, the commissioner approved. You start to look for different trends on the consumer side, but you can’t really dive deep enough to every single thing you get on file to have a picture.
How does a risk-based approach factor into your analysis of a carrier’s market conduct data?
You look for trends, and I think MCAS [Market Conduct Annual Statement] is an example of how the regulatory system works pretty well.
As an industry, we come up with what we think is an acceptable replacement ratio for annuities, or lapses for life insurance, or complaints per premium, etc. If companies fall outside of these benchmarks, you start asking questions. Sometimes, there’s a really good answer. Other times, you may have another issue.
And this is really where the state-based system, depending on your point of view, either shines or has issues. Other states could have a different benchmark. Other states may say, “we’re just going to review the top ten because they are the biggest.”
My point of view is, just because a carrier is a certain size doesn’t mean that I want to look at them every year. I want to look for risks and problems. You look at things differently with a risk-based approach.
Take the ORSA [Own Risk Solvency Assessment], for example. Even though this is a solvency assessment, it also contains market analysis. Continuing the approach of applying context into the other areas that we regulate, and not just the big groups, works well. So, while a small or mid-sized carrier is not going to file ORSA, I think it’s a better regulatory approach than to say, “we determined that you just had too many complaints this year.”
See also: How to Bulletproof Regulatory Risk
Is that a benefit of the state-based system? That Iowa might not be discounting the small carriers when they are looking at market conduct, while other states might look at just the bigger players?
Absolutely. On the market side, there is definitely a check and a balance.
I would say it this way: Commissioner Jones in California told me that he had 220 fraud investigators. Well, the state of Iowa has 115 employees in the whole department, and that includes insurance as well as securities. The state of Iowa has two fraud investigators. Iowa certainly doesn’t need 220, but it’s easy to see the disparity and the size of the market.
His biggest issue is the size of the California’s market. It’s the sixth- or seventh-largest in the world. And, it doesn’t have a ton of domiciled carriers. So, Commissioner Jones has different issues and takes a different approach. He may look at annuity sales and complaints per $1,000 in premium, or another metric. California has issues that are more uncommon to them simply due to the size of the market.
Are states more likely to identify different issues with a carrier?
Yes. We may not see the same issue that another state would because our market is smaller. This is why the concept of checks and balances makes sense. And that is why it works pretty well. You have different states with different markets that identify issues differently from Iowa, or California, or Florida, or another state.
Take Florida, for instance. They have a radically different population mix in terms of age and demographics, but also weather events. The issues unique to a state – hurricanes in Florida, earthquakes in California or Oklahoma, etc. – make for different issues and challenges that are best regulated locally. The system works well because it has a check and balance: Each state focuses on issues it identifies, which may not be as relevant elsewhere. Sometimes, it’s related to the size of the state’s market, sometimes it’s related to different risks in that state.