Thanks to an independent effort by New York insurance regulators, MetLife expects to reduce by about $1.8 billion, or more than 30%, the amount it must post to back up its variable annuity living benefit guarantees, The Wall Street Journal reports.

A spokesman for New York's insurance department said officials there agreed to accommodate a proposal from the American Council of Life Insurers to let certain insurers take advantage of an existing methodology that might reduce their reserve requirements.

The alternate methodology blessed by New York officials is available only to insurers that demonstrate to regulators they have strong hedging programs and other financial resources in place, he said. MetLife was apparently among them.

MetLife's finance chief, William Wheeler, said on December 8 that the alternate methodology is "a little more conservative" than what the NAIC currently recommends that states use as of 2009. Reports did not indicate whether other insurers in New York can or will take advantage of the New York action.

State insurance departments ordinarily rely on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners’ expertise in solvency matters to guide them in setting rules. But they aren't required to wait for instruction from the NAIC.

For its part, the NAIC is still assessing the reserve and capital changes proposed in November by the American Council of Life Insurers that could ease requirements for various products offered by insurers throughout the U.S. Comments can be found on the NAIC website.

Reserve levels and capital cushions of publicly traded variable annuity sellers have been scrutinized in recent months. Annuity owners worry whether the issuers can support their guarantees, many of which are deeply “in the money” because of the stock market crash. Analysts and stock investors fret that higher reserve requirements might weaken the issuers.

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