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MetLife Waiting Game Continues

It looks like MetLife Inc. (MET) and its shareholders will have to hurry up and wait some more. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. held its monthly board meeting behind closed door in Washington on Tuesday, and a day later, no news has emerged indicating if the board debated the sale of MetLife's bank deposits to General Electric Co. (GE). FDIC approval of GE's proposed purchase of MetLife's U.S. retail-deposit business is a critical step in MetLife's bid to raise its stock dividend and buy back shares, something MetLife shareholders have been anticipating for months. The two companies originally predicted GE could win the necessary approvals by June, but MetLife executives have declined to speculate on a timeline in their more-recent comments on the transaction. Analysts have said the FDIC has been busy with broader banking-industry issues and that the delay likely doesn't reflect any issues with the transaction. A spokesman for GE Capital Financial, the unit that agreed to buy the deposits, said the company was continuing to work with regulators. A MetLife spokesman said the insurer is awaiting approval from the FDIC. MetLife's shares in the past three weeks have rallied, rising to a three-month high of $35.25 Tuesday, from $28.33 on July 24. Improving company fundamentals have attracted investors to the stock in recent weeks, and the stock posted sharp gains after the insurer predicted in its quarterly-earnings conference call that the low-interest-rate environment that has been vexing insurance companies overall would have less of an impact on earnings than some analysts previously feared. The latest month of inaction on the GE transaction pushes MetLife closer to a deadline set by the Federal Reserve that requires the insurer to resubmit a 2012 capital plan by the end of September. MetLife had sought to sell its banking business to remove itself from under the Fed's regulatory umbrella and avoid such scrutiny. The Fed stood in the way of MetLife's effort to return capital to shareholders when it failed the Fed's annual "stress test" in March. MetLife blamed "bank-centric methodologies" for its failure, saying the test wasn't appropriate for evaluating the financial strength of an insurance company. Banking represented less than 2% of MetLife's operating earnings in 2011. After the failure, MetLife won an extension from the Fed that pushed back the deadline for the company to resubmit its capital plan to Sept. 30. The FDIC board typically meets once a month, though it can gather more often if it chooses. That means GE has at least one more chance to gain the FDIC approval before MetLife has to submit a new plan or win a second extension. For GE, the deal would provide a source of inexpensive, stable funding. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency conditionally approved MetLife's plan to exit the banking business in June. As part of its agreement with the OCC, the insurer said it would make good on its bank's remaining obligations to rectify alleged improper home-foreclosure practices. MetLife agreed to pay a $3.2 million fine to the Fed to settle those allegations last week. In announcing the agreement, the Fed said the pending sale meant it was "appropriate to act at this time" to settle the dispute. Even if MetLife sheds its bank-holding-company status, it likely won't be rid of federal regulation. Analysts have predicted that MetLife, other large insurers and GE, among others, are likely to be regulated as nonbank systemically important financial institutions under 2010's Dodd-Frank Act. Such oversight likely would be tailored to their particular industries. --Victoria McGrane contributed to this article. Write to Erik Holm at Subscribe to WSJ:

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