MetLife Fighting Systemic Tag Asks Why Buffett Gets Pass

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MetLife Inc., the insurer fighting the U.S. government’s decision to label it a potential threat to financial stability, wants to know why Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. has gotten a pass.

Documents just released show that question was posed last year by John Hele, MetLife’s chief financial officer, in a meeting with the Financial Stability Oversight Council. MetLife is suing the FSOC, a group of regulators that designated the insurer systemically important. The decision will probably lead to stringent capital and liquidity requirements, and could subject the company to oversight similar to that imposed on big banks.

“It is difficult to understand why, say, Berkshire Hathaway with $64 billion in debt and $277 billion of market capitalization should not be considered a systemic risk,” Hele said at the November meeting at the Treasury Department in Washington.

Hele also mentioned Visa Inc., noting that the world’s largest payments network had a market capitalization of $135 billion. MetLife’s market capitalization is about $52 billion.

A transcript of the meeting, at which MetLife tried unsuccessfully to persuade the FSOC to reverse its decision, was released in a court filing Wednesday night as part of MetLife’s ongoing litigation. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen were among officials who attended the meeting. MetLife’s contingent was led by Chief Executive Officer Steven Kandarian and included General Counsel Ricardo Anzaldua.

‘Dramatically Overstates’

Hele argued that the FSOC analysis “dramatically overstates counterparty exposure to MetLife.” The council said the insurer’s financial ties to other firms was $188 billion, while the correct number is no more than $90 billion, Hele said.

The FSOC officials have previously said they take many factors and financial statistics into account and that no one number determines whether a company is considered systemically important. The council also analyzes the kind of exposures a company has in addition to the number.

In an explanation of its decision that the FSOC gave to MetLife in December, the council said even the lower level of exposure could threaten U.S. financial stability if the company were to fail.

The FSOC designated MetLife “after a rigorous, data-driven analysis that included extensive engagement with the company over a 17-month period,” a Treasury spokesman said. “We are confident in the council’s analysis.”

FSOC Chairman Lew, Yellen and Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White were among the council members who spoke at the meeting.

Financial Distress

“When a firm is in financial distress, there can be significant short-term uncertainty about the potential repercussions across markets,” Lew said. “Market participants are not always willing to wait and see how things will play out.”

Yellen asked the executives to discuss MetLife’s use of short-term funding.

MetLife’s Kandarian has been arguing against the systemic-risk designation since the council began discussing the company more than two years ago. At the November meeting, he said no large global bank has much exposure to MetLife.

Berkshire, like MetLife, runs insurance businesses but also has operations ranging from heavy manufacturers to retailers and one of the biggest U.S. railroads. Buffett was a source of liquidity during the worldwide credit crisis beginning in 2008, extending billions of dollars to companies including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and General Electric Co.

Buffett, Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive officer, declined to comment, as did Connie Kim, a Visa spokeswoman.

Companies designated systemically important are subject to Fed oversight, which can force them to hold more capital and assets that are easy to sell. Four firms have received the FSOC label: MetLife, Prudential Financial Inc., American International Group Inc. and General Electric’s finance unit.

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