Stung by widespread criticism of SEBI’s action in attempting to regulate ULIPs, the government has settled the issue of regulatory turf battle by changing the law
In a move that stunned the financial world and dealt a massive blow to the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI), the government found a permanent solution to turf battles between regulators through a hush-hush ordinance that was promulgated late on Friday night. The news of the ordinance, which was released only on Saturday evening, caught the entire financial world by surprise. One of the key points of the ordinance is that Unit-linked Insurance Plans (ULIPs) would not be regulated by SEBI, as was its aspiration. It would be regulated by the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA), as before. But the ordinance is much bigger in scope and impact.
The government has amended the statute that governs the regulatory bodies in charge of banking, insurance, capital markets and pensions. On ULIPs, while the finance minister's initial reaction was to ask SEBI and IRDA to sort out jurisdiction issues over ULIPs through the court, good sense has prevailed and the ordinance creates a mechanism to resolve all future disputes.
This is in the form of a "high-level committee" headed by the finance minister, which will sort out "all issues of jurisdiction regarding hybrid products" that may lead to a turf war between regulators. This committee would include the finance secretary; secretary, department of financial services and heads of the four financial regulators-the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), IRDA, SEBI and the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA).
Since the ordinance and the government press statement unambiguously clarified that "the life Insurance business shall include any Unit Linked Insurance Policy (ULIPs) or scrips or any such instruments," these would remain under IRDA. The action was welcomed by insurers and independent financial planners (IFAs) who have been in turmoil since 9th April, when SEBI barred 14 insurance companies-Aegon Religare, Aviva, Bajaj Allianz, Bharti AXA, Birla Sun, HDFC Standard, ICICI Prudential, ING Vyasa, Kotak Mahindra, Max New York, Metlife India, Reliance Life Insurance, SBI Life Insurance and TATA AIG-from selling ULIPs.
This also means that several lawsuits filed in connection with the SEBI action will now be irrelevant.
"We are happy that all confusion regarding ULIPs has been comprehensively removed. The setting up of a joint committee under the Union finance minister and the heads of regulators is a good step and an effective mechanism to resolve issues regarding jurisdiction of any financial instrument in the future," said Kamesh Goyal, managing director and chief executive officer of Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance.
"This is good news for the policyholder, because ULIPs are insurance products and it also will help in regulations," said Yogin Sabnis, a certified planner for VSK Financial Consultancy Service Pvt Ltd. He said that IRDA must now focus on improving regulations and the mis-selling of insurance. Another financial planner, while welcoming the news, said, "The ministry should have taken action long back, instead of opting for the status quo. But this is good news for investors in ULIPs."
Deepak Sood, MD & CEO, Future Generali India Life Insurance Co Ltd said, "The long-awaited clarity in the regulatory framework is welcomed by insurers and customers alike. The uncertainty had led to insurers delaying their distribution thrust and customers delaying the decision to invest in insurance cover. Now with this ordinance and the clarity it offers, both IRDA as the regulator and us as insurers can focus on our efforts to provide total insurance solutions to Indian customers and focus on the bigger macro-economic need. There is a crying need to rapidly grow the real penetration (per capita) of insurance cover among our people, to help ensure the financial security and happiness that this provides."
He added, "It has also been clarified that pension products need not compulsorily offer life insurance cover or health insurance cover as was required by an earlier IRDA circular. Now an insurance contract offering one out of three-life insurance cover, health insurance cover or annuitisation on human life is sufficient to categorise it as a life insurance product. Going forward, we are confident that customers will benefit from the awaited fresh guidelines on ULIPs from IRDA."
Those who deal with mutual funds are not so happy. They believe that IRDA is soft on insurers and will not regulate them as well as is required. However, this is not the indication from knowledgeable sources. They say that the government has backed IRDA, but it will have to tighten regulation which it seems to be progressively doing.
SEBI's April diktat that insurers launching new ULIPs would need its clearance has also fallen by the wayside. So insurance companies are gearing up for new product launches. "It didn't matter who would regulate ULIPs. Now that there is clarity, we are glad to be able to focus on the business. We were not allowed to launch any new ULIPs, but now we will be able to," said an official from Reliance Life Insurance, who spoke to Moneylife on the condition of anonymity.
However, insurers will have to comply with new stricter guidelines issued by IRDA in the last few months. These include measures such as a cap on charges, extending the minimum term of the policy to five years, bringing the concept of compulsory annuitisation in pension policies and the proposal of fixing the maximum limits of surrender charges.
Life Insurance Council of India's secretary general SB Mathur said that the move was expected. In retrospect, the move by the finance ministry isn't one of complete surprise. At a recent inauguration of a new building for the Insurance Institute of India, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee said, "I understand that IRDA has taken some very positive steps in respect of regulations of ULIPs which are in the interest of both the insurance industry as also the policyholders." He also commended the role of intermediaries, especially agents in the insurance sector, who contribute in ensuring that insurance products reach everyone in the country.
The writing on the wall was clear, ever since Deepak Parekh, chairman of HDFC openly said that the row between regulators has made us a "laughing stock" in front of the world. However, few expected that the action would be in the form of such a decisive ordinance. The latest government action has triggered speculation that several other controversial actions and decisions by SEBI may also come in for scrutiny.
So, after all, there is some basis for the rumours that all is not well between the ruling Party...
But so far, all the talk of a divergence of views was just that—talk—at least till 29th March....