Hong Kong’s insurance regulator sets its first task as cross-border enforcement

Hong Kong’s new insurance regulator, set to come into operation on June 26, plans to work closely with their mainland counterparts on oversight and education

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 11:15am

The newly set up Hong Kong Insurance Authority plans to work with its mainland counterpart on cross border regulation in a bid to protect the thousands of mainlanders who represent nearly two-fifths of life policies sold in the city annually.

The Insurance Authority will officially start operations on June 26, taking over from the Office of the Insurance Commissioner as regulator for all insurance companies and overseeing about 90,000 insurance sales staff.

“There are many mainlanders buying insurance products in Hong Kong which is positive for Hong Kong as an international insurance centre. However, these cross border transactions also mean there is a need for us to pay attention and to keep in close communication with the mainland insurance regulator to crack down on any malpractices or misselling to protect the interest of all policyholders,” said Moses Cheng Mo-chi, chairman of the Insurance Authority.

Mainlanders bought HK$49 billion (US$6.28 billion) worth of life policies in Hong Kong during the first nine months of 2016, representing almost 40 per cent of all life policies sold in the city, according to the most recent data.

Among the 21 proposed takeovers of Hong Kong insurers worth US$4 billion in the past three years, nine were led by mainland companies, according to data from Thomson Reuters.

Cheng said Hong Kong was an open market and he welcomed mainland investment into local insurers.

“What is important is we have to make sure the new buyers continue to appoint professionals who understand the local insurance market. We want them to invest for the long term benefit of the Hong Kong insurance sector and not to chase short term profits,” he said.

He added that the authority would work with CIRC to bolster public education on insurance products on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

“It is important for mainland policyholders to understand the currency risks and about their rights when they buy policies in Hong Kong.”

Cheng said the authority plans to work closely with the CIRC to ensure a high standard, noting that there have been few complaints of product misselling.

The establishment of the Insurance Authority will also reflect a regulatory milestone for the local insurance sector.

The new regulator will function as a public body, with independent financial status. Plans are for the regulator to employ up to 300 people, up from about 180 currently, under non-civil service contracts with a budget of HK$650 million (US$83.37 million) for its first four years of operation.

It is expected that John Leung Chi-yan, the incumbent Insurance Commissioner, will be acting chief executive for a year while a search for a replacement is conducted.

“It is hard to find a new chief executive as we want someone who knows insurance and also the local market well,” Cheng said.

In future, the city’s 90,000 insurance salesmen will need to apply to the authority to renew their licenses, a switch from the current practice of self-regulation by the industry body.

Tay Keng Puang, managing director and chief executive of MassMutual Asia, is concerned that the new authority may lead to excessive regulation and rising compliance costs.

“We would like to see the new authority achieve a balance between market development and regulation,” Tay said.

Hong Kong Federation of Insurers chief Peter Tam said he’s upbeat on the opportunity to engage with the new regulatory authority.

“We support the new authority to work closely with the CIRC on more cross border regulatory co-operation. The Belt and Road Initiative may present more cross border infrastructure projects that may need insurance coverage. Hong Kong insurers could have a role to play in these projects,” Tam said.