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US regulators label MetLife as potential financial threat

WASHINGTON — Major insurer MetLife Inc. says U.S. regulators have labeled it as a potential threat to the financial system, a designation that brings stricter government oversight.

MetLife said Thursday that the Financial Stability Oversight Council has designated the company as “systemically important.” As a result, MetLife must increase its cushion of capital against losses, limit its use of borrowed money and submit to inspections by examiners. MetLife will come under the supervision of the Federal Reserve. Its primary regulator now is New York state.

In a statement, New York-based MetLife said it is “disappointed” in the decision and has given the regulators evidence showing it is not systemically important as defined by law. The insurer maintains that its industry is less risky than banking, and that imposing bank capital rules on life insurance companies could make it harder for Americans to buy insurance products.

MetLife will have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the regulators’ action in federal court.

MetLife was the fourth nonbank financial firm to be given the label by the council, a group of top regulators created by Congress in response to the 2008 financial crisis. The council is led by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and includes Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Mary Jo White, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The group took the action on MetLife in a closed meeting, and it did not announce its decision.

Last year the council labeled American International Group Inc., General Electric Co.’s finance arm GE Capital and Prudential Financial Inc. as systemically important financial institutions.

The council proposed labeling MetLife in September and gave the company an opportunity to make its argument in a closed hearing. For the designation to become final, the council had to vote a second time, with at least two-thirds of the 10 voting members agreeing.

“Singling out two large life insurance companies (for the designation) will harm competition, lead to higher prices and less choice for consumers, and ultimately could result in less financial protection for middle-class families — who need it the most,” MetLife said in its statement. It was referring to itself and Prudential.

Regulators saw a need for closer oversight of big financial companies that aren’t banks after the near-collapse of AIG threatened to bring down the global system in September 2008 during the crisis.

The biggest banks already were under the Fed’s supervision. A 2010 financial overhaul law brought strict new rules for them, such as on the amount of capital they must hold to cover potential losses. Nonbank companies that are designated as systemically important are also subject to those rules.

BY MARCY GORDON, AP Business Writer