Insurance regulation has traditionally been the near-exclusive province of the states, a right jealously guarded by the states and secured by Congress in 1945 after the Supreme Court ruled insurance could be regulated by the federal government under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.
Any fear that the FIO report would call for an end to state regulation proved unfounded, but industry members might be well-advised to prepare for the eventualities that may result as the FIO uses both the soft power of the bully pulpit and the harder power of the federal government to achieve its aims. As the designated U.S. insurance representative in international forums that more and more mold financial services regulation, and as an arbiter of standards that could be imposed on the states, the FIO and this report should not be ignored.
Having met with the FIO’s leadership team, we believe there are concerns that uniformity at the state level cannot be achieved without federal involvement. We further believe the FIO plans to work to translate its potential into an actual impact in the near future, making a clear-eyed understanding of the report and what it may herald for insurers a prudent and necessary step in regulatory risk management.
The biggest surprise about the FIO report may well have been that there were no surprises. There were no strident calls for a wholesale revamp of the regulatory system, and praise for the state regulatory system was liberally mingled among the criticisms.
The lack of any real blockbusters in the details of the FIO report may seem to lend implicit support to those who foresee a continuation of the status quo in insurance regulation. But, taken as a whole, this report and the regulatory atmosphere in which it has been released should be considered a subtle warning of changes that may yet come.
The report may quietly help to usher in an acceleration of the current evolution of insurance regulation. The result could be a regulatory climate that offers more consistency and clarity for insurers and reduces the cost of regulation. The result could also be a regulatory climate that offers more stringent regulatory requirements and increases both the cost of compliance and capital requirements. Most likely, the result could be a hybrid of both.
Either way, preparing to influence and cope with any possible changes portended in the report would be preferable to ignoring the portents.
Part of the disconnect between the short-term reception and the long-term impact of this report may be because of the implicit FIO recognition in the report of the lack of political will needed to enforce any real changes in current U.S. insurance regulation, most especially any that would require increased expenditures or personnel at the federal level. In our current economic and political environment, plugging gaps in state regulation by using measures that would require federal dollars may quite reasonably be construed to be off the table.
But the difference between identified problems and feasible solutions may offer an opportunity. States, industry and other stakeholders could act together to bring needed reform to the insurance regulatory system in a way that adds uniform national standards to regulation, reduces the possibility of regulatory arbitrage and maintains the national system of state-based regulation, all while recognizing the industry’s strengths and needs and not burdening the industry with unnecessary, onerous regulation.
There is much to praise in the current state regulatory system. A generally complimentary federal report on the insurance industry and the fiscal crisis of the past decade noted, “The effects of the financial crisis on insurers and policyholders were generally limited, with a few exceptions…The crisis had a generally minor effect on policyholders…Actions by state and federal regulators and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), among other factors, helped limit the effects of the crisis.”
While the financial crisis demonstrated the effectiveness of the current insurance regulation in the U.S., it is also evident that, as in any enterprise, there are areas for improvement. There are niches within the industry – financial guaranty, title and mortgage insurance come to mind – where regulatory standards and practices have proven less than optimal.
There are also national concerns that affect the industry. The lack of consistent disciplinary and enforcement standards across the states for agents, brokers, insurers and reinsurers is one obvious concern. Similarly, the inconsistent use of permitted practices and other solvency-related regulatory options could lead to regulatory arbitrage. At a time when insurance regulators in the U.S. call for a level playing field with rivals internationally, these regulatory differences represent an example of possible unlevel playing fields at home that deserve regulatory attention and correction.
A Bloomberg News story in January 2014, for example, quoted one insurer as planning to switch its legal domicile from one state to another because the change would allow, according to a spokeswoman for the company, a level playing field with rivals related to reserves, accounting and reinsurance rules.
For insurers operating within the national system of state-based regulation, one would hope that that level playing field would cross domiciles, and no insurer would be disadvantaged because of its domicile in any of the 56 jurisdictions.
But perhaps one of the greatest challenges to the state-based system of regulation is the added cost of that regulation, partly engendered by duplicative requests for information and regulatory structures that have not been harmonized among states. How to respond to that may represent the biggest gap in the FIO report. It may also be the biggest opportunity for both insurers and regulators to rationalize the current regulatory system and ensure the future of state-based regulation.
The FIO report notes that the cost per dollar of premium of the state-based insurance regulatory system “is approximately 6.8 times greater for an insurer operating in the United States than for an insurer operating in the United Kingdom.” It quotes research estimating that our state-based system increases costs for property-casualty insurers by $7.2 billion annually and for life insurers by $5.7 billion annually.
According to the report, “regulation at the federal level would improve uniformity, efficiency and consistency, and it would address concerns with uniform supervision of insurance firms with national and global activities.”
Yet the report does not recommend the replacement of state-based regulation with federal regulation, but with a hybrid system of regulation that may remain primarily state-based, but does include some federal involvement.
At least one rationale for this is clearly admitted in the report. As it says, “establishing a new federal agency to regulate all or part of the $7.3 trillion insurance sector would be a significant undertaking … (that) would, of necessity, require an unequivocal commitment from the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government.”
The result of that limitation is a significant difference between diagnosis and prescription in the FIO report. Having diagnosed the cost of the state-based regulatory system as an unnecessary $13 billion burden on policyholders, the FIO's policy recommendations may possibly be characterized as, for the most part, the policy equivalent of “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”
Still, as the Dodd-Frank Act showed, even Congress can muster the will to impose regulatory solutions if a crisis becomes acute enough and broad enough. Unlikely as that may now seem, the threat of federal radical surgery should not be what is required for states to move toward addressing the recommendations of the FIO report.
Indeed, actions of the NAIC over the past few years have addressed much of what is in the FIO report. Now the NAIC, industry and other stakeholders can take the opportunity provided by the report to work to resolve some of the issues identified in it. The possible outcome of an even greater federal reluctance to become involved in insurance regulation would only be a side benefit. The real goal should be a regulatory system that is more streamlined, less duplicative, more responsive, more cost-efficient and more supportive of innovation.
Kevin Bingham has shared this article on behalf of the authors of the white paper on which it is based: Gary Shaw, George Hanley, Howard Mills, Richard Godfrey, Steve Foster, Tim Cercelle, Andrew N. Mais and David Sherwood. They can reached through him. The white paper can be downloaded here.