IPO for Indian Life Insurers

In October 2010, the capital market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), approved life insurance companies to issue IPOs. India’s insurance regulator, Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA), has been planning to come up with guidelines for IPOs of life insurance companies for quite some time; an announcement is expected within the next few months. Current regulations allow only those insurers that have been in business for at least 10 years to go for an IPO. The government is likely to bring this down to five years; however, a final call is yet to be taken. Another such pending proposal is raising the limit of foreign ownership in a joint venture life insurer to 49% (currently capped at 25%). After an IPO, foreign promoters will have to bring down their stake to ensure Indian promoters hold a majority. An insurer opting for a public offering must also offer at least 25% of the shares to the public. Like any other IPO, pricing of an insurance IPO is an area of concern. This is more so for two reasons. First, insurance is a key sector of the economy with a large number of stakeholders; this sector is being allowed to participate in fund-raising from the capital market for the first time. Therefore, overly optimistic valuation may be detrimental to the sector in the long run. Second, in light of the recent events in Japan, it has become critical that all relevant factors affecting the insurance industry are priced in appropriately. The IRDA is likely to spell out appropriate guidelines regarding valuation accordingly. Insurance IPOs are expected to gain traction in the medium to longer term; however, this will also depend on the evolution of the markets and regulatory landscape. The Indian capital market seems to have hit a roadblock in recent months due to high inflation threatening growth prospects. The insurance sector in particular has been adversely affected. New policy sales by private firms took a hit in 2010, and margins are also under pressure. The Direct Tax Code (DTC), scheduled to implementation in 2012, is another cause for concern. This may remove some tax advantages for certain insurance products and raise the tax burden on insurance companies, which is likely to have an adverse impact on sales and profits. Several private sector insurers, including the likes of ICICI Prudential Life, Reliance Life Insurance, SBI Life Insurance, and HDFC Standard Life, are planning to tap the capital market. However, their expected times of offering may differ. While some may go for IPOs in the very near term, others may wait for some time. For example, Reliance, which has been supporting the reduction of the 10-year operations rule to five years, can be expected to raise money from the public in the short term. On the other hand, SBI Life is not in a hurry and wants to wait and watch as the regulations evolve. So even if IPOs do not pick up in the near term, they are likely to become popular in the medium to longer term.

Financial inclusion in India and micro-insurance, the new buzz word

‘Greater financial inclusion’ figures prominently on the economic development agenda set by the Indian government in recent times. The much-talked-about UID project which aims to provide unique identity numbers to all Indian citizens, and links the number up with a compulsory bank account is indeed a bold step towards realizing that goal. The recent buzz word, however, in discussions on financial inclusion seems to be micro-insurance. The Finance Minister, in his recent address at the Global Insurance Summit, stressed on the need for popularizing micro-insurance in semi-urban and rural areas of the country. The attention on micro-insurance seems to have come at a right time, when the success of several government sponsored welfare schemes for the rural poor in India like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) depends quite a lot on the ability of the financial system to mitigate the risks arising out of unforeseeable natural calamities and other disasters. In this context, the increasing efforts of insurance companies in tapping semi-urban and rural markets are an encouraging sign. Insuring the vast rural population against losses from disasters is indeed a big challenge for the Indian insurance industry, when at the same time it is important to ensure that premiums remain affordable. IRDA, the Indian insurance regulator, has in a recent exposure draft on a standard insurance product suggested that the premiums will be decided by the regulator and insurers might not get any leeway in this regard. The regulator’s goal of promoting financial inclusion is laudable, but greater freedom to insurance companies to design products and price them might be more desirable. The regulator has also proposed that insurers will have to mandatorily offer the standard product. The draft also talks about placing restrictions on selling other products with higher premium and lower benefits. Overall, it could be surmised that the regulator is concerned about insurance agents pushing expensive endowment products to the poor, which is a very valid concern. It would be interesting to monitor developments in this area for the next few months, as IRDA is also considering a proposal to allow cross-selling of micro-insurance products which would essentially provide insurance companies access to the large network of public sector banks for selling their products. The banks would benefit too as it would enable them to enlarge their portfolio of products.

SEBI succeeds in curbing ULIP threat to Mutual Funds

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), India’s capital market regulator has succeeded in achieving its underlying objective in the recent row with the insurance regulator, Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA). The removal of the front-load commissions for mutual funds by SEBI in mid-2009 had led to an environment in which the mutual funds were at a disadvantage against the insurance companies’ unit linked insurance plans (ULIPs), which had a large investment component. For ULIPs, the commissions for the agents continued to be high, at times more than 40% for the initial installments. As a result, there was mis-selling (over-selling and resorting to unfair practices) on part of the insurance agents. By raising the issue of its role in the regulation of the investment component of the ULIPs, SEBI ensured that the IRDA was forced to take action to prevent SEBI from encroaching into its domain of insurance regulation. In the end, IRDA had to increase the insurance component of ULIPs and also to create disincentives for people who were investing in ULIPs for a period of less than five years. Also, the commission structure of ULIPs had to become more transparent to prevent mis-selling. The two main beneficiaries of this action have been the mutual funds that have regained their pre-eminence as a tool for investment, and the consumers who are enjoying more transparency in ULIPs than earlier, albeit at the cost of fewer choices, as the ULIPs are no longer directly competing with mutual funds. There are some important issues that have been raised by this entire episode. The main one is that there needs to be a redressal mechanism through which the regulators can solve problems with each other. The ULIP episode has been a highly long-drawn public affair that caused a lot of confusion for the investors and companies alike. The insurance companies’ revenues due to ULIPs will also suffer as there would be less investment in them now. Furthermore, the episode does not reflect well on the reputations of the regulators or the Ministry of Finance. There were contradictory signals coming from the ministry as the Finance Minister referred the matter to the courts, but the his Minister for State supported the IRDA’s case in a written reply to the Upper House. The early stage of development of financial regulation in India means that there will be more turf wars. The government is possibly trying to create the infrastructure for their quick resolution through the creation of the Financial Stability and Development Council (FSDC). Whether it is through the FSDC or some other means, it is important to lay down clear guidelines to be followed. Otherwise the Indian financial markets would more and more resemble the Wild West, entertaining for sure, but too chaotic to make sense of. This issue has been dealt with in greater detail in a recent Celent report: Capital Market Regulation in India: Turf Wars Inevitable?