Jan 12, 2009

Business - India;The amendment to LIC Act

On December 23, 2008, the government introduced in Parliament a Bill for amending the Insurance Act, to raise the capital of the Life Insurance Corporation from Rs. 5 crore to Rs. 100 crore. On the face of it, the intention behind the proposed amendment may appear to be good. Unfortunately, it is not so.

Needless exercise

It is a recognised fact that a life insurance company does not require any capital. There were, and still are, many life insurance companies known as Mutuals. Standard Life of the U.K. (which operated in India even before 1900 and is now again in India in partnership with Housing Development Finance Company) was a mutual company till June 30, 2006. In India itself, Bombay Mutual, before nationalisation of insurance, was a well known example. The mutual companies have no capital — only working capital, during initial years. Policyholders are the owners of these companies and the entire profit, after tax, goes to them.

The Rs. 5 crore provided by the government at the time of formation of LIC was more in the nature of working capital than real capital. Today, the Controlled Fund of LIC exceeds Rs. 7 lakh crore, with a solvency margin reserve of more than Rs. 30,000 crore. This reserve, built up by transfers from surplus (profit) after tax, is akin to general reserve and, therefore, for all purposes, equivalent to capital, but with one difference. Ninetyfive per cent of this capital belongs to policyholders.

With policyholders thus providing almost 95 per cent of the capital, LIC is virtually a mutual company. In this context, an addition of Rs. 95 crore to capital is a drop in the ocean and serves no purpose, except perhaps to facilitate passing of a part of the business to the private sector, Indian and foreign.

Can a minority shareholder unilaterally alter the capital structure of a company? This question has to be first answered before the bill, in its present form, is taken up for discussion in Parliament.

As per the LIC Act, the Central government is not eligible for more than five per cent of the valuation of surplus emerging each year. This was in line with the standard set up by Oriental Assurance Company before nationalisation. In the case of private insurers, as per the Insurance Act, the shareholders are eligible for 100 per cent of the surplus emerging from without profit policies and 10 per cent of the surplus emerging from with profit policies. The unit linked policies come under the without profit category. With these policies constituting more than 95 per cent of the portfolio of private insurers, almost 98 per cent of surplus goes to shareholders in the case of private insurance companies.

Policyholders to suffer

If the proposed amendment to the LIC Act goes through, the shareholders’ share of profits of LIC will immediately jump from five per cent to 10 per cent and then gradually increase, during the next ten years, to more than 40 per cent. That is, within the next ten years, even assuming only a modest growth rate, the shareholders of LIC would get more than Rs. 15,000 crore a year, or Rs. 1,250 crore a month, as compared to the present level of Rs. 1,000 crore a year. This, at the cost of policyholders.

These figures would explain the objective behind the proposed amendment.

Such a move to siphon off the profits of LIC will result in enrichment of private pockets, drastically reduce the levels of bonus to policyholders, render the corporation uncompetitive and eventually weaken it beyond recognition. Simultaneously, the demand to withdraw government guarantee to LIC has been resurrected. The government can be allowed to withdraw the guarantee but, on one condition. Convert the LIC into a mutual company and make the policyholders, who have contributed 95 per cent of the capital, the owners.

The amendment to the Insurance Act made in 1999 has conferred on us a distinction. After this amendment, India is perhaps the only country not to allow formation of mutual insurance companies. But, this position can be easily rectified through a minor amendment to the Act. In this context, it is worth mentioning the view held by the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS). According to this body (not binding on member states), an insurance company can be either a joint stock or a mutual company.

For giving up its control of LIC, the government may be compensated through payment of a fixed sum, say Rs. 1,000 crore a year, for the next 20 years. One may feel that the quantum of compensation is high. But, the price of freedom always is.

If such a scheme is implemented, it would result in immediate increase in the levels of bonus to policyholders, making LIC a much stronger organisation.

In 1993, a national survey was got conducted by the Malhotra Committee, spanning cities, towns and villages. The survey showed that LIC’s emblem was readily recognised by more than 99 per cent of the persons covered by the survey. The LIC is not just a national institution. It is a symbol of national integration and its emblem is treated as a symbol of security. It is the duty of every right thinking Indian to stand up against any attempt to dilute this status.


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