New Insurance Authority faces danger of becoming too rich

The Securities and Futures Commission is a model of how not to fund a regulator

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 3:16pm

In a couple of weeks time, millions of insurance policy holders in Hong Kong will begin funding a new regulatory body -- the Insurance Authority.

From the new year, all insurance policyholders will start to pay a levy based on their annual premium to support the authority, which will have oversight of approximately 80,000 insurance salespeople.

In addition to the levies, the authority will have HK$650 million in government funding to help see it through its first five years. After that it will break away from government support, funding itself 70 per cent via levy income and 30 per cent from the license fees paid by insurance companies and salespeople.

The funding model has come under fire from lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, who criticised it as unfair to average people who, as policy holders, must bear most of the financial burden to fund the future operating cost of the new regulator.

However, the funding model as proposed is a good one, as it means the big insurance providers won’t be in a position to exert influence over the regulator -- something which tends to happen when the relationship between regulators and the financial sector gets too cozy.

Since the Insurance Authority will be checking up on insurance companies and the agents, it would be a conflict of interests if all the salary and operating cost of the regulators are paid by the industry.

To illustrate another potential problem, lets turn the spotlight on the Securities and Futures Commission, which has become excessively wealthy thanks to its HK$7 billion reserve, which represents more than four years of its annual operating expenses.

Where did the massive reserves come from? Look no further than the stock market rally in 2007, or the sizzling markets in April to June, when daily turnover was regularly breaching HK$200 billion a day,or about triple current market levels. Levies on these trades quickly added up.

The Insurance Authority also plans to rely on levies for about 70 per cent of its income, based on a 0.04 per cent charge in the first year and eventually rising to 0.1 per cent in year six. Estimates are that the levy will generate HK$132.5 million in year one, rising to HK$524.3 million in year six. In fact, by that point, the levy income will outstrip the regulator’s annual operating costs, estimated at HK$484.6 million. If things go as planned, the Insurance Authority is expected to have a surplus of HK$111 million around year five to six

Meanwhile, consider that contributions to life insurance products are expect to grow by 10 per cent a year, while contributions to general insurance will rise by 7 per cent a year -- and its not hard fathom how the authority can accumulate a surplus.

In theory, the Insurance Authority will lower the levy when the surplus exceeds two years’ annual expenditure.

But in reality, such mechanisms rarely work. In fact, the SFC has the same legal requirement, even as its surplus capital is stretched to about double that threshold.

Regulators by nature should not be excessively rich.

It might be time to push for levy holidays from our regulators, or for other changes that can help make such they don’t get too rich.