NEW YORK — In the first legal challenge to a U.S. body that arose from the financial crisis, MetLife is challenging its designation by regulators as a potential threat to the financial system.
MetLife, the largest U.S. insurance company by assets, announced Tuesday that it is taking the government to court to appeal its assessment by the Financial Stability Oversight Council as "systemically important." That means regulators believe MetLife is so big and entwined with the financial system that it could threaten the economy if it collapsed.
The oversight council, a group of top federal regulators created by the 2010 Wall Street overhaul law to monitor the financial system, decided last month to label MetLife as systemically important. The designation brings stricter government oversight and, MetLife says, exorbitant costs.
MetLife will be required to increase its cushion of capital held in reserve against losses, limit its use of borrowed money and submit to inspections by examiners. New York-based MetLife will come under the supervision of the Federal Reserve. Its primary regulator has been New York state.
The Financial Stability panel was empowered by the 2010 law to tag certain companies for stricter supervision as a way to end "too big to fail" — the idea that some financial institutions are so big and crucial to the system that the government would step in to rescue them if they veered toward collapse. That's what happened in the 2008 crisis, with hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer aid going to big U.S. banks and other financial institutions.
MetLife was the fourth nonbank financial firm to be given the label. The other three are American International Group, General Electric Capital Corp. — the finance arm of General Electric Co. — and Prudential Financial.
Those companies did not appeal the designation, but MetLife insists that tougher requirements on life insurance companies would force them to raise the prices for their products, reduce the amount of risk they take on in their products, or stop offering some products altogether. Capital requirements for banks were established to protect depositors, rather than ensuring that life insurers can meet their obligations to policyholders, the company says.
Analyst Steven Schwartz of St. Petersburg-based Raymond James said MetLife is afraid of the Fed developing capital rules that are more restrictive than state and credit rating agencies' policies.
"If MetLife is required to hold even more capital than currently required by the rating agencies, then it could be at a disadvantage in pricing products," Schwartz said.
The FSOC is led by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and includes Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Mary Jo White, chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Treasury spokeswoman Suzanne Elio said Tuesday that the council has been notified of MetLife's legal action.
"The council's decision to designate a nonbank financial company is reached only after a thorough analysis and extensive engagement with the company, both of which occurred in this case. We are confident in the council's work," Elio said.
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MetLife, which has a market capitalization of about $57 billion, said the designation will increase costs for consumers. It serves about 100 million customers and has operations in almost 50 countries.