(Week 14 - Wednesday, Nov. 12)
The lead article in Monday's Wall Street Journal announced that the Federal government has agreed to offer AIG (American International Group), the nation's largest insurance company, a "bailout package" worth $150 billion. This raises the question, has there occurred somewhere recently massive losses of life, injury and property that have made such a financial rescue plan a necessity? Clearly there has not. If we follow this line of inquiry through to its logical conclusion, we will discover that "insurance companies" are no longer primarily insurance companies. Rather, they have become more-and-more a means to create pools of capital to be used for financial speculation.
Theoretically an insurance company is a business that has been granted a corporate charter by the society it supposedly serves to gather and manage a pool of money for the purpose of providing people with protection against catastrophic financial expenses brought on by loss of life, health or property. The idea is that each person that subscribes to the service contributes money to a common pool of funds through the payment of premiums, and those relatively few people who experience a loss are then compensated out of it. The premium rates, then, would presumably be set at such a level that the amount of money in the pool would be adequate to compensate expected claims, plus provide enough left over to cover the actual expenses of the company, and allow for a modest profit. This is all so straightforward that it hardly warrants explanation, but increasingly it is not what happens.
Instead, insurance companies use the premiums they collect to create "investment" funds, which they then use for speculation in financial markets. While it is true that they do in fact pay claims out of premiums collected, their unstated financial speculation agenda causes them to have to charge higher premiums than they would otherwise have to merely to cover claims. They justify their "investments" by saying that they are merely acting responsibly with their customer's money. After all, so the rationale goes, since there always needs to be a substantial pool of capital maintained to insure that there are adequate funds available for when their customers experience a loss, they may as well "invest" these funds so that the income they produce in the meantime can be used to defray part of the cost of the premiums. On the surface this sounds reasonable. On a deeper level it is very deceptive.
To begin with, excess funds that are bound up in such "investments" are not, relatively speaking, very "liquid". That is, they are not readily available to cover ordinary day-to-day claims made against the capital pool. Therefore, the "investment" pool is essentially extra capital that must be maintained over and above the actuarial requirements of the insurance function itself.
It could be claimed that the nature of a given company's business is such that it insures against losses that occur infrequently and on a large scale, as might be the case, for example, for one whose primary business is to cover losses incurred from natural disasters. It would make good business sense, supposedly, to earn "interest" from these idyll funds while they are lying for long periods of time at the ready, so to speak. This argument too breaks down. Such a monies may need to be paid out on short notice, and therefore the essential financial quality that is called for is liquidity. A large capital pool that is bound up in a portfolio is almost by definition not very liquid, and the necessity to make it so quickly may result in having to dump its speculative-paper contents on the market in what is essentially a fire-sale circumstance, thereby driving down the its redeemable value. That would tend to defeat the argument that the purpose of "investing" their customers' premiums is a way to defray their cost. As a hedge against this, the tendency will be again to maintain a fund that is larger than is necessary for the purposes of insurance alone.
Looking deeper into the problem, when an insurance company collects a premium, it is taking money out of the money supply for which the consumer receives no immediate value in return. Essentially the buying power it represents is held in abeyance until a claim is made and the money paid back out. To the extent that this is necessary it can be justified as a business practice. To the extent that premiums are "invested", however, it cannot.
With respect to the market cycle in the economy, the "investment" of insurance premiums has a net affect that is similar to that created when "interest" payments are made on private bank loans, whereby the payments go to "investors" who have bought the "debt" contracts by which the loans were created so that they might be the recipients of those payments. The consumer in the aggregate is shortchanged of the earned income required to pay the cost of the goods and services equivalent to what he produces. This money is effectively withheld from circulation until someone comes along who is willing to "borrow" such funds from the "investor", thereby returning it to the money supply, but now with an increased "debt" obligation attached.
The money that is paid in as premium payments to an insurance company that is excess to the amount required to cover claims, plus the actual material costs of and a reasonable profit to the company, acts in much the same way as those "interest" payments made on bank loans. These net over-payments represent a net subtraction from the money supply, which, in turn, creates a need for someone to "borrow" this money back into circulation so that the market cycle can be completed.
This practice, then, of insurance companies maintaining capital pools that are "invested" in financial instruments, supposedly for the benefit of their customers, is revealed to be a wealth transference scheme that is carried out at the expense of their customers, and of the society at large. Increasingly, the insurance industry has become a cash-cow for the speculative financial industry, and AIG is the prime example. If that is not so, then where are the actual losses in life, limb and property that the citizenry is being called upon to pay? With this AIG "bailout" package, We the People, through our government, are being asked to take on an enormous "debt" to cover the losses of financial speculators. It has absolutely nothing to do with the legitimate functions of the insurance business.
The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.