California Commissioner Fingers Insurers for Iran Investments

By Don Jergler | February 13, 2013
businessmen handshake after good deal in front of iran flag

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones on Wednesday singled out eight insurers licensed to do business in the state that continue to have investments tied to Iran’s energy, military and nuclear sectors.

During a press conference in Los Angeles Jones called out the insurers for not divesting their holdings in multinational companies doing business in Iran under the Department of Insurance’s Iran Divestment Program launched in 2009 by then Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

In tying the insurers, all but one of which are life insurance companies, to Iranian investments, Jones noted that the nation itself has been tied with terrorism and he referred to Iran’s efforts to become a nuclear nation.

Around the same time that Jones was making his remarks it was being reported that Iran had started installing a new generation of machines for enriching uranium, a move countries like the U.S. fear is an effort to speed up Iran’s alleged efforts to create a nuclear weapon despite Iran’s stated intent that its goal is to generate nuclear power and not weapons of mass destruction.

Jones stood with several members of Los Angeles’ Jewish community when he made the announcement, and he also used the occasion to praise the program’s results over the last four years.

From the roughly 1,300 insurers doing business in California the total amount of investments in companies doing business in the Iranian military, energy and nuclear sectors was roughly $6 billion at the beginning of the program. Currently insurer investments in companies doing business with the Iranian energy, military, and nuclear sectors total just under $200 million, a 97 percent reduction, according to Jones.

And the list of insurers declining to divest has been reduced to eight from 341 in 2009, according to the department.

Those eight insurance companies are: State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., ING USA Annuity and Life Insurance Co., The Ohio National Life Insurance Co., Ohio National Life Assurance Corp., Life Insurance Company of North America, National Guardian Life Insurance Co., Assurity Life Insurance Co.

“Iran poses a national security risk for the United States and its allies,” Jones said, adding that the nation bankrolls terrorists and that the U.S., its allies and a host of international organizations have posed numerous sanctions against the Iranian regime. Aside from the U.S. federal government’s actions, several states have launched Iran divestment campaigns, including California.

The department also has a list of those companies doing business in Iran, many of which are based in China, India, Russia and South Korea. That list, which numbers 37, none of which are U.S.-based companies, includes names like China National Petroleum Corp., GS Holdings Corp. Hyundai E&C Co. Ltd. and Hyundai Heavy Industries and Indian Oil Corporation, Ltd.

A settlement from previous lawsuit involving insurance groups and the department related to the department’s program prevents Jones from taking any significant action against the insurers, other than divulging the names of the companies. Jones said he’s talked to and emailed executives at the insurance companies in an effort to get them to adhere to the department’s divestment program, but he didn’t elaborate on any resonses he received.

Jones justified his involvement by saying that insurance investments in companies doing business in Iran put those insurers’ investments at financial risk because that nation is unstable, at risk for conflict and further sanctions against Iran by other countries and groups are a strong possibility.

The department describes the program on its website: “The Department of Insurance recognizes that businesses supporting Iran’s nuclear, military and energy sectors are exposed to potentially volatile reductions in the value of their stock. Because of the asymmetric risk associated with investments in these businesses, the Commissioner encourages all insurers to refrain from investing in multinational corporations with significant connections to these sectors of Iran.”

However, a State Farm spokesman, who said the company’s investments are in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, doesn’t think Jones and the department should be involved in international affairs.

“State Farm cares deeply about America’s security,” Bob Devereux, manager of media relations for State Farm, wrote in statement addressing Jones’ speech on Wednesday. “And while we respect the California Department of Insurance’s interest, we believe foreign policy and rules on foreign investments can be most effectively addressed by the federal government which regularly deals with matters of foreign policy. In addition, it is our understanding that domestic insurance regulators take the lead in prudential regulation of their companies. In State Farm’s case, its domestic regulator is the Illinois Department of Insurance.”

Devereux declined to state how much State Farm’s investments may total, referring to his statement to answer all follow up questions.

All seven life insurance carriers, or their holding companies or parent companies, were contacted for this story, but only one was immediately available to provide a response.

Madison, Wis.-based National Guardian Life Insurance Co. Chief Counsel Matthew Dew and Chief Financial Officer Brian Hogan said they have communicated with Jones and tried to explain that their investment in Indian Oil was small, not easy to quickly get rid of and should be considered an exception because of a temporary waiver from sanctions granted by the U.S. to India for financial reasons while that country undertakes efforts to curb investing in Iran.

National Guardian in 2007 invested $2 million in Indian Oil, which Dew described as “a private placement thing” with no ongoing market in which to dump the investment.

“It’s hard to sell it, and we told him that,” Dew said of his communications with Jones and the department.

According to Dew, Jones and the department wanted to the company to sell off its investment by Oct. 28. “And of course we would have reported a loss if we tried to do it that quickly,” he added.

He said that matter “really belongs at the federal level,” and he believes to take a $2 million loss would be unfair to policyholders.

According to Hogan, the company has $3 billion in assets and $500 million in premiums nationally, with a “significant amount of business in California.”

Joining Jones at his conference was RWR Advisory Group President and CEO Roger W. Robinson, Jr., a national security risk expert who served as senior director of international economic affairs at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration.

RWR is a Washington, D.C.-based risk management and consulting firm, which describes its a core focus as being on the intersection of global finance and international security concerns.

Robinson said even indirect investments in Iran are at significant risk of loss of business opportunities due to possible exclusion from procurement contracts, as well as class-action lawsuits by victims of any abuse or harm done by the regime in Iran.

“It can have a debilitating impact on their bottom lines,” Robinson said, adding that aside from the obvious risks with being associated with Iran, “there are a number of more hidden tripwires.”

He added, “This is a genuine risk, this is not a politicized matter.”

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