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RBNZ a ‘poor communicator’ - CBL’s Harris

By Paul McBeth

July 17 (BusinessDesk) - The Reserve Bank’s failure to communicate was a major stumbling block for failed insurer CBL Corp.

Former managing director Peter Harris is adamant the insurer – now in liquidation – could’ve found a commercial solution to a sharp increase in under-reserving and rejects assertions that the firm was insolvent as far back as 2013.

The failed insurer was back in the spotlight this month after the Reserve Bank released the findings of an independent review of its handling of the case.

Mary Scholtens QC and actuary John Trowbridge found that the central bank had too light a touch at times with the insurer and that its oversight was a dramatic example of the inadequacies in the prudential supervision regime.

Harris said Reserve Bank officials didn’t understand the commercial realities facing the firm and were harder to deal with than other regulators.

“They were not interested in commercial decisions. They weren’t interested in the commercial implications of what they were doing,” Harris told BusinessDesk.

“The biggest problem we had with them was that they were very poor communicators.”

Harris said he had hoped the appointment of Adrian Orr as Reserve Bank governor would instigate change at the regulator but hasn’t seen any sign of that happening.

The Scholtens and Trowbridge report noted several instances of communication breakdown, not just with CBL, but also with other regulators such as Gibraltar Financial Services Commission, and the insurer’s appointed actuaries.

Among the report's recommendations was for the Reserve Bank to adopt a more sceptical approach to its prudential oversight, and it has already signalled a willingness to be more intrusive.

That was on display this week with Reserve Bank stipulations to protect AMP's New Zealand life policyholders likely to block a planned A$3.3 billion sale of AMP's trans-Tasman life business to Resolution Life, a specialist in buying insurance books closed to new business.

Reserve Bank deputy governor Geoff Bascand put the blame squarely on the insurers, saying AMP and Resolution failed to consider the New Zealand regulator’s requirements when reaching their deal.

The Reserve Bank has been questioning the adequacy of its oversight of international insurers for several years and previously sought feedback on the issue in a stalled review of the insurance prudential supervision regime.

AMP was one of a number of firms submitting that overseas insurers weren’t under-regulated and strongly opposed any move to compel local incorporation.

It also said there was an opportunity for the Reserve Bank to be more active in providing guidance and commentary to the market, especially around material transactions and other significant events.

New Zealand’s prudential oversight has become a greater source of interest from commentators across the Tasman since the Reserve Bank proposed much stricter capital requirements on the Australian-owned banks.

The Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer columnist, Tony Boyd, this week wrote that Australian regulators should be urging their Kiwi counterpart to be more transparent about its new regulatory stance with Australian domiciled firms.

He said it made no sense for AMP shareholders and policymakers to learn of a change in a 150-year-old practice for life insurers in New Zealand from a surprise ASX announcement.

The Reserve Bank’s approach to continuous disclosure obligations was also a bone of contention for CBL shareholders, who said they were disadvantaged by the secrecy. However, the Scholtens and Trowbridge report concluded the Reserve Bank was right to keep its investigation and concerns secret to maintain public confidence in the insurer.

The confidentiality order was lifted when CBL sought to raise capital to bolster its reserves and sell its French construction insurer. Harris said those initiatives would have kept the firm afloat, despite fears that the French unit's potential claims were too great for CBL to bear.

He doesn’t agree with the actuarial assessments the Reserve Bank relied on and says the sale of Elite Insurance – the French unit – as a solvent entity shows the regulator's fears were overblown.

After a year of trying to find an alternative to liquidating CBL, Harris is trying to tell his side of the story, taking out full-page advertisements in the country’s major newspapers and launching a website in an effort to force a wider review of the Reserve Bank's oversight.

Harris said CBL always did whatever the Reserve Bank wanted, providing reports in short timeframes and keeping the regulator informed of its actions.

A key factor in the High Court ordering the liquidation of the CBL Insurance unit was a series of payments deemed to be in breach of Reserve Bank directions requiring the insurer to consult with the bank before making any transaction or series of transactions of more than $5 million in value.

Harris disputes the High Court rulings, saying the central bank was consulted on a 25 million euro payment and denies other transactions were payments, saying they were refunds and deposits made on behalf of the firm.

He said he hasn’t been engaged in the Financial Markets Authority and Serious Fraud Office investigations into CBL.

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