Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Trevor Butterworth's Fad Food Nation

Fad Food Nation. By Trevor Butterworth
A skeptical survey of the claims being made about food, health and the environment.
The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2013, on page A13


Not so long ago, I spoke to a chef who ministers to children attending some of the most elite and expensive schools in America. Why, I asked him, was his company's website larded with almost comical warnings about the lethality of eating genetically modified (GM) food? Did he actually believe this as scientific fact or was he catering to his clientele's spiritual fears? It was simply for the mothers, he said, candidly. They ate it up—or, rather, they had swallowed so many apocalyptic warnings about genetically modified food that he had no choice but to echo their terror. How could they entrust their children to him otherwise? The downside of such dogma, he explained, was cost. Many of the mothers wouldn't agree to their children eating anything less than 100% organic, even if organic food required flying in, as he put it, "apples from Cuba."

Mr. Butterworth is a contributor at Newsweek and editor at large for STATS.org.

The Financial Instability Council - Regulators want to make insurers too big to fail. Uh-oh.

The Financial Instability Council
Regulators want to make insurers too big to fail. Uh-oh.
The Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2013, on page A14

There's finally a healthy discussion in Washington about how to end too-big-to-fail banks. But before the government can start getting rid of taxpayer-backed behemoths, it first has to stop creating them.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank law classified all banks with more than $50 billion in assets as systemically important, and the federal Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) is considering which non-banks should also be deemed too big to fail. Last year the board of regulators slapped the systemic tag on eight "financial market utilities," including clearinghouses, which means taxpayers now stand behind derivatives trading. Congratulations.

And last week the council, chaired by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, declared that GE Capital, the finance arm of General Electric, GE and AIG are also officially important. Now the council is trying to designate insurer Prudential as systemic, and perhaps MetLife too.

GE Capital was rescued in the 2008 panic and thus deserves the systemic label. AIG seems to welcome the designation, perhaps because its current mix of businesses means that it will face a lighter regulatory burden than some competitors. But taxpayers should be cheered to learn that Prudential and MetLife are resisting membership in the too-big-to-fail club, and for good reason. It's a giant and counterproductive leap to conclude that the insurance business presents a systemic risk to the financial system.

AIG was a giant insurer when it failed, but its disastrous housing bets largely occurred outside its traditional insurance businesses, which have always been regulated by the states. The company's catastrophic wagers on the mortgage market were overseen by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Thrift Supervision. So of course Treasury's solution is to expand federal regulation to the businesses that weren't overseen by the department and didn't fail. Makes perfect Beltway sense.

But this logic should give taxpayers pause. Along with the "systemic" designation comes regulation that was created for banks, not for insurance companies, and that will create problems for taxpayers and policyholders. Any firm dubbed "systemically important" will be regulated by the Federal Reserve. This will likely mean heavy new capital requirements designed to prevent problems that generally don't exist at an insurer.

Banks accept short-term liabilities in the form of deposits and use them to fund long-term loans. This "maturity transformation" has wonderful economic benefits but carries the risk of failure if lots of depositors suddenly want to withdraw their funds. To address this risk, banks are required to maintain capital cushions and liquidity to meet deposit withdrawals that can occur at any time.

Insurers, by contrast, match long-term liabilities with long-term assets. Premiums to cover some event likely to occur decades in the future are invested in assets of a similar duration. There is little risk of a "run on the bank" because policyholders, unlike depositors, typically cannot demand the face value of their policies in cash. Tornadoes, car accidents and terminal cancer do occur, but they don't occur everywhere at once, and they are not triggered by a panic in financial markets.

Insurers can fail, but since customers cannot immediately demand their money the way bank depositors can, the failures tend to play out slowly over many years. States also typically require insurers to contribute to a fund to make up for the shortfall if one of them fails and its assets and liabilities don't match. Without the same immediate demands for cash as at a bank that's heading south, there is less risk of an asset fire sale that could roil markets.

Treating insurers like banks would also raise costs substantially at insurers as they scramble to comply with the new burdens. This means higher premiums for customers. MetLife hired consultant Oliver Wyman to calculate the consumer costs of bank regulation if applied to several insurers that could potentially fall under federal bank rules. The industrywide estimate: $5 billion to $8 billion a year.

If companies can't pass along these higher costs to customers and stay competitive, they are likely to exit the business, especially the capital-intensive life insurance market. That would mean less competition.

The other big risk is that the systemic risk designation could turn out to be self-fulfilling. If an insurer has to accept bank regulation, it might as well consider expanding into bank businesses. If it has to pay the regulatory costs of holding short-term liabilities, then the natural next step is to consider relying more on short-term funding, which almost everyone agrees was a key vulnerability leading into the 2008 crisis. Insurers may become riskier institutions than they now are, which means more risks for taxpayers.

This is no idle fear because the only certainty about financial regulation is that it never prevents the next crisis. Yet in order to reinforce the illusion of effective regulation, and vindicate the folly of Dodd-Frank, regulators are about to force insurance companies and customers who didn't cause the last crisis to pay more while encouraging firms to pursue riskier business thanks to an implied federal backstop. They should have called it the Financial Instability Council.