For the more than 25 crore policyholders of Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), the LIC-IDBI Bank headlines are very upsetting. LIC will use up to ₹ 13,000 crore of policyholder money to buy up to a 51% stake in IDBI Bank, an asset nobody wants to touch. With stressed assets of ₹ 55,588.26 crore and bad loans a huge 28% of the total loan book, IDBI Bank is probably the worst of the bad banks of India. With its own paid-up capital at just ₹ 100 crore as on 31 March 2017, LIC will use policyholder money entrusted to it to make this equity investment.
LIC has been the gilt-edged long-term safety net for most of post-Independence middle India. “LIC kara lo” is a refrain heard in Indian homes the minute the first salary of the young adult of a family begins to come in. There is public anger when this security of savings comes under threat. There are lots of reasons the policyholders are worried. They are worried about the safety of their money—what if the entire money goes down the drain. They are worried about this being a precedent to more such toxic asset purchases. They are worried about the haste with which the insurance regulator has interpreted a rule to allow this sale—insurance firms are not allowed to hold more than a 15% equity stake in a single firm to prevent concentration of risk.
The news of the appointment of Subhash Chandra Khuntia as the insurance regulator on 1 May 2018 came as a surprise to most financial sector watchers. Of the eight people shortlisted for the final round of screening, Khuntia was the only bureaucrat, the rest were insurance industry insiders, including the serving Life Insurance Corp. of India chairman V.K. Sharma, New India Assurance chairman and managing director (CMD) G. Srinivasan, member Life at Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (Irdai) Nilesh Sathe, and K. Sanath Kumar, CMD, National Insurance. The choice of a person with limited domain knowledge over others who have spent their entire careers working in this very technical industry was the surprise. Remember that it took an earlier outsider, J. Hari Narayan, the first three years of his five-year term to understand the sector. In fact, by the time he demitted office, he understood the sector so well that it went against the then government’s own agenda to allow him to continue. So what has gone into the decision to appoint an outsider as the head of a regulatory body that watches over Rs28 trillion of household savings and over Rs2.2 trillion of general insurance money?
Two and a half months after T.S. Vijayan retired, the insurance regulatory body, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (Irdai), has got its 5th chairman, Subhash Chandra Khuntia. A former chief secretary to the Karnataka government, he has his desk overloaded as he takes over the wheel of a body that regulates firms managing over Rs28 trillion of household savings through life insurance and another Rs2.2 trillion in the non-life insurance space.
The insurance regulator has been an outlier in the financial regulatory space. While disagreements with the government by independent regulators are well reported, the conduct of the insurance regulator has left policy makers, the financial sector and analysts open mouthed. Many decisions over the past few years have been in the face of global moves by regulators on issues of costs and transparency. Raising front commissions in life insurance products, repackaging what were illegal payouts as “rewards”, doing away with a persistency target to ensure that agents don’t churn policyholders and continuing with fuzzy disclosures in both life and general insurance products are just some of the actions that have left households even more vulnerable to mis-selling and outright fraud by banks and agents.
Regulations in the financial sector need to keep evolving as the market grows in depth, breadth and complexity. Think of this as the need for road rules and a traffic management system in a large metro—what worked 30 years ago cannot work today. It was possible to travel 5 km in Delhi without running into traffic lights or traffic cops 30 years ago as road traffic was thin. A malfunctioning traffic light today causes hours of traffic jams. As the traffic volume rises, cities resort to one-way traffic rules, higher parking fees and other measures to curb traffic in the city centre. Financial markets are similar; regulations need to keep moving to keep pace with the changing face of the market. Has the market changed? Yes, the size of the assets under management by the three large parts of the retail financial market—mutual funds (only retail), life insurance and the National Pension System (NPS)—crossed Rs34 trillion in FY 2017, up from Rs22 trillion just 3 years ago. Both the volume of money and the number of people on-boarding these products has risen sharply over the past few years. The share of household savings in financial products has been rising and now more than one-third of household savings find their way into financial products. In addition to the urban users of these products, a new category of investors are getting added through the Jan Dhan accounts. These are people who will be first-time users of many financial products as they move from cash, gold and real estate.
A recent story reports on mis-selling and fraud by a bank in rural Rajasthan where they allegedly made bank deposit customers put their signatures on life insurance products of a group firm. While the story of people of small means being cheated out of their money is worrying enough, what is of greater concern is that this problem is not limited to one insurance company or bank, or location. Life insurance mis-selling and fraud by bank branches is systemic in the country. The evidence to this statement comes from three sources. The first is anecdotal: almost everybody who has a bank account has a mis-selling or fraud story to tell about life insurance. For those who superciliously turn away from anecdotes, there are three academic papers that nail the problem. In 2014, two economists and I, wrote a paper estimating that policyholders lost over Rs 1.5 trillion from mis-sold life insurance plans between 2007 and 2012. In 2017, I published another paper that mystery shopped bank branches to catch mis-selling. I found that bank officials lied most of the time on features around costs and costs of early redemptions to potential customers. A 2015 paper by Anagol et al find that agents overwhelmingly recommend life insurance products that are unsuitable to the customer but get the agent high commissions. Three, two government committees, Swarup and Bose, have found life insurance to have very high front incentives that cause sharp sales and fraud. (Disclosure, I have served on both the committees).