Is Mark Carney nannying insurers?

Mark Carney

Governors of the Bank of England have not historically fired shots across the bows of the insurance industry - because the Bank of England has never had responsibility for regulating and supervising insurers till given these duties by the current government.

So Mark Carney's stern warning to insurers, that the Bank of England is keeping a beady eye on them, to keep them on the straight and narrow, is something of a first.

Some of what he wrote in the Times was fairly uncontroversial. Saying that insurance bosses who do wrong should and will face the same tough new penalties that are being introduced for miscreant bankers will be seen as reasonable.

And the Bank of England would not be doing its new job if it failed to raise concerns, as Mr Carney has, that some insurers are making dangerously risky investments right now - which they have an incentive to do because supposedly safer investments, such as government bonds, deliver miniscule yields or income.

As I understand it, this reckless investment is particularly characteristic of general insurers, who have struggled to increase premiums - rather than life insurers, who have reacted to the low-interest-rate climate by slashing annuity rates, to protect their profits (thus upsetting pensioners, and prompting the Chancellor to end the requirement on savers in money-purchase pension schemes to purchase annuities on retirement).

But there is one statement Mr Carney made which may stir up something of a debate in the City, and more widely, because it may be seen as the Bank nannying too much.

Failing insurers

He said that although the role of the Bank is not to stop insurers from failing if they manage their affairs badly, it is to "make sure that failing insurers don't harm their policy holders, cost the taxpayer money or make insurance harder to obtain".

After the City debacle of 2007-8, which was so expensive for the public sector, few would want taxpayers on the hook to bail out insurers on the brink.

But why should policy holders be protected from losses? Is there only a de minimis role for caveat emptor when buying insurance?

If the Bank of England sets itself up as the protector of policyholders, why should they bother to shop around to give their cash only to prudently managed insurers?

And what incentive would there be for the insurer to manage itself prudently? Surely it would be rational for an insurer to offer investment products that promise unrealistic returns, or general insurance priced too cheaply, if customers believe the Bank of England will insulate them from losses in a crisis.

Also, if insurance is cheap and plentiful before a crash because insurers are behaving as the banks did before the Crash, viz they are generally under-pricing risk, it would surely be a good thing if insurance became harder to obtain.

In that sense it seems odd that Mr Carney should set up the Bank as promising to prevent any tightening in the market.

Robert Peston, economics editor Article written by Robert Peston Robert Peston Economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Banks and insurance companies share the same bed, taking our money and playing the money market roulette , these institutions do not have money of their own they depend on people investing savings etc so they can play money market roulette to pay themselves nice bonuses before they pay investors with what's left, why shouldn't someone keep an eye on them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Surely the general public do not expect insurers to go bankrupt any more than banks, and so the idea of 'caveat emptor' is not really relevant here. This is another reason why regulation is necessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Sadly, Mark Carney is right. I have seen a considerable fall off of both professionalism and ethical standards in the insurance profession in the last few years and a sad loss of the insurance tradition of "my word is my bond"arising on a regular basis.
    Even the FCA and FOS set up to protect policyholders are clearly struggling to manage the unprofessional handling of business now commonplace

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    JfH @42
    "Nothing has been resolved
    structures remain un-fixed"

    Worse, our 'fixing' is itself subject to our society-wide 'institutional corruption', with no escape if not consciously from that which makes 'problems' really problems, from our fearful inequality, driven greed, corruption & crime. John, we really do have to look behind the opposing front-line, and see the controlling power: Mammon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    41.All for All "...corruption is STILL to be faced."

    I agree. The banks and the banking system has not changed for the better at all. Nothing has been resolves and the dangerous econo9mic and financial structures remain un-fixed.


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