MetLife Says U.S. Plan Threatens Ability to Aid Middle Class

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MetLife Inc. said its dual roles of offering retirement products and advising customers are threatened by a U.S. Labor Department proposal that was designed to make sure savers’ interests are put first.

“Without substantial modifications, the proposal could force companies such as MetLife to choose between manufacturing individual annuities and distributing,” Chief Executive Officer Steve Kandarian said on a conference call Thursday.

President Barack Obama’s administration says new rules are needed so that savers won’t be pushed into high-fee products by brokers who make commissions from banks or insurers. Kandarian previously likened the plan to forcing a Chevrolet dealership to guide potential customers to Ford vehicles.

“The proposed rule effectively makes it a conflict of interest to sell your own products,” Kandarian said Thursday. “It is unclear what public policy goal is served by making it more difficult for companies to provide guaranteed retirement income to consumers.”

Other providers of retirement products have also faulted the proposal, with Stifel Financial Corp. CEO Ron Kruszewski calling it “almost unworkable” and Voya Financial Inc. saying it would jeopardize retirement income by by making it harder to get advice.

Middle Class

Kandarian, 63, said the rule would punish most savers. The only exception, he said, would be the wealthy because their holdings generate enough fees to make it worthwhile to provide them investment advice.

“Assets of middle-income investors are unlikely to generate fees sufficient to offset” the higher costs of offering advice under the proposal, he said. “Consequently, those consumers could find it difficult, if not impossible, to receive face-to-face investment advice.”

MetLife slipped 1.9 percent to $56.13 at 12:54 p.m. in New York trading. The company, which is the largest U.S. life insurer, has advanced 3.8 percent this year, compared with the 5.2 percent gain of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Insurance Index.

The insurer’s executives were asked on the call whether rule changes would push the company to change pay tied to retirement products.

“We have already changed our compensation policies a couple of years ago to, I would say, equalize comp between proprietary and non-proprietary annuities for our producers,” said William Wheeler, head of the Americas region. “That said, we might still have to make other compensation adjustments to our producers” based on the eventual rules.

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