There’s something peculiar in the report on
financial market regulation issued March 31 by Treasury Secretary Henry
Paulson. The plan, touted by some as a bold expansion of federal
control over capital markets and dismissed by others as a mere
rearranging of the deck chairs on the financial Titanic, includes an
incongruous section on the insurance industry.
While insurance is a financial service, it hasn’t been at the center
of the implosion of the housing market or (aside from the bond
insurance crisis) linked to the instability on Wall Street. The Paulson
plan, nonetheless, provides a resounding endorsement of a “reform” that
key players in the insurance industry have been seeking for at least 15
years—allowing large national carriers to do an end run around the
current state-based insurance regulatory system. Such carriers would be
permitted to adopt an “optional federal charter” and thereby put
themselves under the supervision of a federal regulatory agency that
does not yet exist.
Big Insurance has not sought federal oversight because it wants more regulation.
After all, this is the industry that pioneered offshoring when some
carriers moved their official headquarters to tax havens such as
Bermuda. While it is true that many state regulators have been
toothless watchdogs, other states have been aggressive in protecting
the interests of policy holders and the public.
In fact, the Paulson proposal comes just a couple of weeks after
insurers were celebrating the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer
in a prostitution scandal. During his time as New York’s attorney
general, Spitzer pursued major insurance companies such as Marsh &
McLennan and American International Group for offenses such as bid
rigging. Marsh ended up settling for $850 million in 2005, and AIG paid
a whopping $1.6 billion the following year. While it is true that
Spitzer went after the industry as a prosecutor rather than a
regulator, he did so in the overall context of state oversight.
The insurance industry swears that it supports the optional federal
charter in the name of modernization (as does the Paulson report), but
it is significant that the reform has been supported by groups such as
the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute that
are no friends of regulation (some Democrats in Congress are also in
favor). When word of Paulson’s insurance proposal leaked out over the
weekend, the American Insurance Association rushed out a press release
hailing it, saying that the optional federal charter “will be more
efficient, effective and rational given the ‘increasing tension’ a
state-based regulatory system creates.”Throughout its history, the insurance industry has avoided “tension”
by trying to minimize government interference in its affairs. In 1945
the industry supported the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which responded to a
Supreme Court ruling by affirming the regulatory role of the states. In
recent times, the industry has wanted the option of federal oversight
on the assumption that it would be less onerous. I’ll let the legal
scholars decide whether state or federal regulation is inherently more
appropriate. The issue is whether an industry not known for generous
treatment of its customers (think of Katrina victims denied coverage)
is going to be subjected to some strict oversight somewhere.
Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.