Despite a long-standing policy debate, insurance remains the only major financial industry not to be regulated at the federal level, a tradition dating from the 19th century. However, recent financial turmoil has fundamentally changed the terms of this important discussion.
Many contend that as opposed to as many 51 separate regulators, a single federal insurance regulator would: allow insurers to pass substantial savings on to their consumers; preempt market distorting state regulation of rates; attract the expert talent needed to supervise the increasingly complex industry products; improve competition between insurers and non-insurance financial institutions for insurance-like products; better position insurers to compete globally and; make national policy with respect to insurer solvency.
However, state insurance regulators and some smaller insurers and insurance agents favor the current system, arguing that: they alone have the interest, expertise, and accessibility to consumers to handle best consumer complaints; insurance rates must be subject to oversight if not outright control to protect consumers; and state regulators have moved aggressively in recent years to improve their solvency regulation.
After weighing these arguments, I conclude in this essay that insurers and agents operating in multiple states should have the option to operate under a more streamlined regulatory system, and in particular to choose between being chartered and thus regulated by individual state regulators, or by a new federal insurance regulator. Congress has considered but not yet enacted legislation establishing this “optional federal charter” system, analogous (although not identical) to the regulatory system that has long governed the U.S. banking industry.
Further, the recent financial crisis and associated bailout of AIG make it is clear that, in addition to the optional federal charter, the government should require federal solvency and consumer protection regulation of the largest insurers that are deemed to be “systemically important financial institutions.” Clearly, if the federal government is potentially needed as a source of debt or equity funds for certain insurers, there is a strong case for having the federal authorities actively oversee the financial safety and soundness of at least those firms that may benefit from federal, and thus national taxpayer, assistance.