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NEW YORK -- If financial services are included in the World Trade Organization's latest agreement later this week, insurers will be in a much more secure position as they expand into international markets, an insurer executive says.
But if talks on including financial services as a permanent feature of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade fail -- as seems the more likely outcome -- international insurers will remain exposed to the whims of protective governments, contends Maurice R. Greenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of New York-based American International Group Inc.
If that occurs, this week's WTO talks will represent a third missed opportunity to improve the climate for insurance and financial services companies involved in international trade, according to Mr. Greenberg.
The other setbacks were congressional failure to grant President Clinton fast track negotiating powers on trade issues and a rejection by Congress of U.S. contributions to the International Monetary Fund to create an emergency credit fund, he said.
Outside of the specific trade-related negotiations, all U.S. companies should be concerned about the management of the turmoil in Southeast Asian stock markets, said the AIG executive.
To greater influence international affairs, senior executives at international insurers in the United States should become more personally involved in the decision-making process, rather than simply sending in lobbyists, Mr. Greenberg advised.
"If you want to get the attention of senators or congressmen, you will only get it if you send the principal of the company," he said.
Mr. Greenberg was speaking at a conference on managing change in the property-casualty industry sponsored by Coopers & Lybrand L.L.P. in New York last week.
The deadline for the end of the WTO talks on financial services is Dec. 12, and the likelihood of securing an agreement "is very dim," Mr. Greenberg said. "The U.S. probably won't sign on, and if we don't sign on, there won't be an agreement."
The inclusion of financial services in the framework of GATT would provide a set of guidelines for insurers and other financial services providers with offices in multiple countries, Mr. Greenberg said.
U.S. negotiators are pressing for a minimum of about 10 key countries, including many in Southeast Asia and Latin America, to agree to open their financial services markets before it signs the agreement.
While several of the countries have expressed an intention to allow greater access to their markets, few have put their offers in writing.
One of the main issues for AIG and other international insurers based on the United States is the status of existing operations in foreign countries, Mr. Greenberg said. The U.S. is pressing for other countries to guarantee companies' right to perpetually own those operations without fear of a future restriction on foreign ownership.
Another disappointment for corporations interested in promoting international trade was the failure of Congress to grant President Clinton fast track negotiating powers. That will hinder any future trade liberalization agreements between the United States and other countries, Mr. Greenberg said. "Fast track failure is a disaster," he said.
Instead of the administration being able to negotiate a complete trade agreement and then send it to Congress for approval, congressmen will be able to change the agreements, which will greatly hamper their chances of passage, he said.
Then shortly after Congress denied President Clinton fast track powers, it also voted down U.S. contributions to the International Monetary Fund to set up an emergency credit fund, which would deal with financial problems such as the turmoil in the Southeast Asian economies.
Congress is impairing the IMF's ability to deal with the financial crisis, Mr. Greenberg said.
Despite the vote in Congress, however, the IMF is moving to help stem the crisis and plans to lead a $55 billion relief package for South Korea.
Although the financial crisis in Southeast Asia poses threats to the world economy, it also provides some opportunities for investment in the region, Mr. Greenberg said.
"There are many companies in those countries that six months ago looked very good, and it's hard to believe that if nothing has fundamentally changed. . .that they are worth 40% less today," he said.