‘SIFI’ Label For Nonfinancial Firms In Jeopardy

American insurance giant MetLife has doubled down on its efforts to skirt the heavier regulatory burden that comes with being labeled a Systemically Important Financial Institution.

Under the Dodd-Frank Act, SIFIs are deemed to pose a serious risk to the real economy if they were to fail and have to meet higher capital requirements and develop detailed contingency plans to be followed in the event of a failure.

About a year ago, MetLife appealed a decision by US authorities to label it a SIFI. In mid-January 2016, with that verdict still pending, it announced that it was considering divesting itself of its US life insurance unit, a plan which could undermine the US government’s efforts to increase oversight of nonfinancial firms that are considered “too big to fail.”

MetLife has weighed the possibility of doing away with its more capital-intensive businesses for a few years, says Deutsche Bank equity research analyst Yaron Kinar. “But this is a drastic decision; it’s not some cosmetic adjustment,” he says.“They might have contemplated it anyway, but I don’t think they’d have gone through with it without the change in the regulatory environment.”

In this new light, MetLife’s strategy appears two-pronged. By pledging to make itself smaller, the company is strengthening its anti-SIFI argument before the courts. Hearings in the case began in Washington in mid-February, but it will be months before a decision is handed down. At the same time, MetLife is also laying out an alternative path in the event it should lose the case, while also keeping its options open with regard to its US retail division.

MetLife is one of three insurance companies labeled nonbank SIFIs. Depending on how things turn out for MetLife, the other two insurers, AIG and Prudential, may also take action.“They [Prudential and AIG] are probably better off letting MetLife do the work,” says Kinar.“If, in a few months, MetLife is no longer so designated, we will probably see a lawsuit from Prudential.”

Kinar says a MetLife victory in court could threaten the whole SIFI framework for nonbanks.“Say that MetLife and then Prudential are declassified, then what’s left?” he asks.“The US government may still want to have a process in place to determine whether a company is a SIFI, but it may just be an empty process.”