February 23, 2024

Seeking Business, States Loosen Insurance Rules

Today, all it takes is a trip to Vermont.

Vermont, and a handful of other states including Utah, South Carolina, Delaware and Hawaii, are aggressively remaking themselves as destinations of choice for the kind of complex private insurance transactions once done almost exclusively offshore. Roughly 30 states have passed some type of law to allow companies to set up special insurance subsidiaries called captives, which can conduct Bermuda-style financial wizardry right in a policyholder’s own backyard.

Captives provide insurance to their parent companies, and the term originally referred to subsidiaries set up by any large company to insure the company’s own risks. Oil companies, for example, used them for years to gird for environmental claims related to infrequent but potentially high-cost events. They did so in overseas locations that offered light regulation amid little concern since the parent company was the only one at risk.

Now some states make it just as easy. And they have broadened the definition of captives so that even insurance companies can create them. This has given rise to concern that a shadow insurance industry is emerging, with less regulation and more potential debt than policyholders know, raising the possibility that some companies will find themselves without enough money to pay future claims. Critics say this is much like the shadow banking system that contributed to the financial crisis.

Aetna recently used a subsidiary in Vermont to refinance a block of health insurance policies, reaping $150 million in savings, according to its chief financial officer, Joseph M. Zubretsky. The main reason is that the insurer did not need to maintain conventional reserves at the same level as would have been required by insurance regulators in Aetna’s home state of Connecticut.

In other big transactions, companies including MetLife, the Hartford Financial Services Group, Swiss Reinsurance, Genworth Financial and the American International Group, among others, have refinanced life, disability and long-term-care insurance policies, as well as annuities.

For the states, attracting these insurance deals promotes business travel and creates jobs for lawyers, actuaries and other white-collar workers, who pay taxes. States have also found that they can impose modest taxes on the premiums collected by captives.

For insurers, these subsidiaries offer ways to unlock some of the money tied up in reserves, making millions available for dividends, acquisitions, bonuses and other projects. Three weeks after Aetna’s deal closed, the company announced it was increasing its dividend fifteenfold.

And as changes to the nation’s health systems are phased in, such innovations might even help hold down the cost of insurance for consumers, much as selling pooled mortgages to investors has made buying a home less expensive.

The downside, though, is that the states are offering a refuge from other states’ insurance rules, especially the all-important ones requiring companies to have sufficient reserves. California, for one, has already chosen not to try to lure such businesses. “We are concerned about systems that usher in less robust financial security and oversight,” said Dave Jones, the California insurance commissioner.

While saying that he wanted to remain open to innovation, Mr. Jones added, “We need to ensure that innovative transactions are not a strategy to drain value away from policyholders only to provide short-term enrichment to shareholders and investment bankers.”

The cost of some of the deals has been considerable. In 2008, MetLife used a subsidiary in Vermont to handle a crucial $3.5 billion letter of credit, with help from Deutsche Bank, because the subsidiary was not subject to the same collateral requirements as in New York. The trade immediately bolstered MetLife’s balance sheet, helping the company to endure that year’s market turmoil without government assistance. But MetLife agreed to pay Deutsche Bank $3.5 million a year for 15 years, according to internal documents obtained by The New York Times — locking itself into high costs for years.

MetLife said its transaction was in keeping with industry rules and norms, and Deutsche Bank declined to comment.

Another issue is public oversight. State regulators normally require insurance companies to make available reams of detailed information. A policyholder can find every asset in an insurer’s investment portfolio, for instance, or the company the carrier turns to for reinsurance. But not if the insurer relies on a captive. The new state laws make the audited financial statements of the captives confidential.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=2a4089ee526f4a1c8ff36f66b4975f97

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