Andrew Ross Sorkin's Misplaced Faith in the Non-economist Great Men of FSOC

Democrats and many others on the left have expressed outrage that judge Rosemary Collyer threw out the Financial Stability Oversight Commission’s ruling that Metlife is a ‘Financially Important Institution’ and thus deserving of enhanced capital requirements. Andrew Ross Sorkin, writing in the New York Times, echoes the opinions of many by expressing outrage at Collyer’s assertion that the analysis presented was woefully insufficient to make that determination.

Sorkin’s complaint about Collyer’s finding – in an argument that would elicit an indignant New York Times oped response if he weren’t a tribe member – is that she’s apparently not smart enough to make that determination. No judge without a doctorate in statistics and economic modeling, he avers, couldpossibly oversee the decisions of a group of scholars like those who sit on the Financial Stability Oversight Commission. It’s her duty, you see, to defer to their collective genius.

Here’s a possibility for Mr. Sorkin to consider: The rocket scientists who he apparently thinks make up the FSOC – which includes precisely one economist (Janet Yellen) and eight lawyers, incidentally – made an overtly political decision that did not hew to the law that created FSOC and gave it the powers to designate a systemically important institution, and the judge is performing her legally required duties by reining it in.

And while judge Collyer may not be intellectually capable enough of making that determination, perhaps we could reference the one FSOC member who actually has some knowledge about the insurance industry – Roy Woodall, who was appointed by President Obama to be the FSOC independent member with insurance expertise. Woodall disagreed with Treasury Secretary Lew and the other FSOC members on MetLife’s inclusion as a SiFi with a blistering dissent that basically accused the other members of not understanding the insurance market, stating in plain language that he did not believe that the commission’s conclusions are supported by any evidence, “or logical inference.” In short, he more or less accused Lew et al. of making an overtly political decision and not the economically correct one.

Woodall avers that some of Metlife’s non-insurance activities should probably be examined to determine whether they may pose an existential threat to MetLife and have the potential to trigger a financial crisis, but FSOC didn’t bother to do that. It solely concerned itself with its insurance business, which he argues (convincingly) has no credible potential to impact the broader financial markets.

In short, Woodall argues that there is no such thing as a run on life insurance. If people decide en masse to get out of their life insurance policies it wouldn’t cause MetLife to run out of money – life insurance doesn’t work that way. In such an event Metlife would see a decline in revenue and a commensurate decline in obligations (with fewer people insurance it will have fewer deaths to pay out on) and its profits over the long run would fall, if their actuaries had been doing their job correctly, but that’s the extent of it.

He further states in his dissent that he suspects that Lew and his compatriots decided to make MetLife a SiFI because the Financial Stability Board, an intergovernmental entity that primarily comprises the G-20s finance ministers and central bankers, designated MetLife a “global systemically important financial institution.” He suggests that effectively delegating such important determinations to an unelected international board is the antithesis of democracy, and suggests that FSOC either attempt to make future SiFi determinations before the Financial Stability Board does likewise in order to prevent it from putting undue pressure on its own determinations.

Sorkin can’t denigrate Woodall’s brief as easily as he could Judge Collyer’s: Woodall was once Kentucky’s insurance commissioner and practiced insurance law for decades. He also was once president of the American Council of Life Insurers, the trade association for the industry. In short, Roy knows life insurance better than anyone else on the council, so Sorkin is going to need a better reason why Judge Collyer is wrong other than simply saying it’s complicated and she lacks the right training and knowledge to make such a decision.