Risk & Compliance

Judge Strips MetLife of ‘Too Big to Fail’ Label

MetLife's victory in a legal battle with regulators could encourage other institutions to challenge the "systemically important" designation.
Matthew HellerMarch 30, 2016

A federal judge on Wednesday struck down MetLife’s designation as a systemically important financial institution, dealing a blow to the government’s post-crisis safety net.

The insurance company has been fighting since 2014 to remove the “too big to fail” label, which subjected it to more stringent regulatory oversight and required it to hold more capital as protection against possible losses. The designation was made by the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), made up of the heads of U.S. financial regulatory agencies.

In granting MetLife summary judgment in its legal challenge to the designation, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer agreed with the insurer that FSOC failed to adequately assess its vulnerability to extreme financial distress and relied on unsubstantiated assumptions or speculation.

The ruling “deals a blow to the expansive post-financial-crisis safety net,” The Wall Street Journal said. “It could embolden other institutions to file similar challenges as well as political critics seeking to curb the broad discretion given to regulators five years ago.”

Investors welcomed the news, pushing MetLife shares up more than 5% to a closing price of $44.66. The shares of two other big insurers, Prudential Financial and American International Group, that have been labeled systemically important also rose.

Collyer’s exact reasoning is unclear because she issued her opinion under seal but Jeffrey Gordon, a Columbia Law School professor who helped write a brief in the case supporting the government, said the decision could be “damaging to [the] long-term financial stability of the United States.”

The Treasury Department said in a statement it would continue defend the “designations process vigorously.” Regulators, it said, “conducted a rigorous analysis of MetLife, including extensive engagement with the company, and determined that material financial distress at MetLife could pose such a threat to the financial system.”

FSOC found MetLife to be systemically important in December 2014, citing its “significant financial activities beyond simply selling life insurance,” and the company sued the government a month later.

“There are well-established principles to guide risk analysis,” MetLife lawyer Eugene Scalia wrote in court papers. “FSOC ignored them.”