The Insurance (Supplementary Provisions) Bill 2009

I note that the Minister of Finance Dr. Ashni Singh has introduced legislation [The Insurance (Supplementary Provisions) Bill 2009] that will bring the functions of the Commissioner of Insurance (CoI) under the Bank of Guyana (BoG). The Explanatory Memorandum states that the “Bill seeks to pave the way for the Bank of Guyana (not the Commissioner of Insurance) to administer the Insurance Act and for a person nominated by the Bank to be appointed by the Court as judicial manager.” Because it was the first reading of the Bill, the Minister was not required to nor did he otherwise give any reason for this move which is not without considerable significance. Such a move would however have been helpful in alerting parliamentarians and the public of the thinking behind the legislation and directing their minds to the kind of preparation they should begin in order to contribute meaningfully to the progress of the legislation.

The Clico meltdown exposed in a rather dramatic and disastrous fashion some of the weaknesses of the existing legislation and its operations. But it also emphasised the need for a more exhaustive examination by an impartial body of the causes of the debacle and the steps necessary to better regulate the insurance sector and prevent similar failures in the future. Without the benefit of that exercise, I can only rely on my experience of the Insurance Act in relation to audits, revelations about Clico as well as – let’s not forget – the GuyFlag/Fidelity story in offering any opinions. Those suggest that what we need are fundamental changes both to the regulatory framework as well as how it operates. The proposed Bill falls very short.

The only change being made by the Bill is the transfer of responsibility for the supervision of the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance from the Commissioner of Insurance to the BoG. This raises the obvious question whether the Minister really believes that that is all that is necessary to fix the system that certainly failed us in the case of Clico and serves us poorly in the case of GuyFlag/Fidelity. One assumes that the Minister would have been kept fully informed by the Commissioner of Insurance that the breaches of key provisions of the Insurance Act by Clico were putting policyholders and depositors at considerable risk. Are those addressed by this Bill? I think not.

There is only one Commonwealth Caribbean country that I know of where the insurance industry is supervised by the Central Bank – Trinidad and Tobago which coincidentally has also had the biggest failure to stakeholders, other than Guyana. In Barbados and Belize the sector is supervised by a Supervisor of Insurance operating under the Ministry of Finance. Jamaica has what I consider to be the best model and one which was recommended in Ram & McRae’s Focus on Budget 2009, i.e. a Financial Services Commission. Under that umbrella can fall responsibility for the supervision of such sectors as insurance, securities, prevention of money-laundering and even the financial institutions. That would allow the central bank to deal with its core objectives, namely “the fostering [of] domestic price stability through the promotion of stable credit and exchange conditions, as well as sound financial intermediation conducive to the growth of the economy of Guyana.”

While the Commissioner of Insurance has had to take responsibility for much of Clico’s regulatory failure, the Bank of Guyana too failed to detect that Clico was engaged in deposit-taking which required Clico to apply to the Bank for a licence under the Financial Institutions Act. In fact the disclosures surrounding financial/quasi financial institutions including Clico, the Hand-in-Hand Trust, the New Building Society and the National Insurance Scheme suggest that the Bank of Guyana has its own problems. To add to its mandate supervision for the insurance sector can compound those problems.

I hope that the Bill is a mere temporary measure until the President’s promised investigation into Clico makes more extensive and meaningful recommendations. I hope we do not have to wait too long.

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