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New combatants in an uncertain war

Despite the single market Commisoner Michel Barnier’s recent concession that the European Commission would not attempt to publish a draft of the revised IORP Directive with its controversial capital requirements attached, the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA) is pushing ahead with several consultations on the holistic balance sheet (HBS).

So while opponents may have won the battle, the outcome of the war remains uncertain – and this is best reflected by the regulator’s new Occupational Pensions Stakeholder Group (OPSG) mulling the launch of a sub-group dedicated to matters of solvency.

Benne van Popta – former vice-chairman under Chris Verhaegen during the inaugural OPSG from 2011 onwards – was elected chairman at October’s first meeting, and Matti Leppälä will serve as his deputy during the group’s two-and-a-half-year lifetime.

Leppälä will be well-versed in the workings of the Frankfurt-based regulator as he currently serves as secretary general of PensionsEurope, while Van Popta himself notes that he has been involved with a number of regulatory debates in the Netherlands and Europe during his career, which began at the Dutch Ministry of Finance and also saw him as co-chairman of VB, the Dutch industry-wide pension fund association.

The 30-strong group is also considering not only the launch of sub-groups on solvency matters, but also ones focused on defined contribution (DC) and personal pensions, reflecting the regulator’s intent to make inroads in all three areas in the coming years.

Critics have questioned EIOPA’s ability to push ahead with no less than five HBS-related consultations by mid-2014, but Leppälä recently told a conference in the UK there was no point questioning whether it had the powers to go ahead – the consultations were happening regardless. “What EIOPA may lack in competence, it compensates in confidence,” he told the UK’s National Association of Pension Funds annual gathering.

Fully accepting this confidence, the stakeholder group therefore plans to set up the sub-groups, with a source close to the OPSG saying that EIOPA was “ambitious”.

Discussing its plans for the solvency sub-group, the source adds: “It’s open for all the members to join the group, and also for people to say if they want to chair the group – that will be a lot of work.”

A second sub-group considered by the OPSG is “around the issue of occupational DC and personal pensions”, the source says, noting there was some division among the stakeholders on the need to split the two topics.

“Many people see that even though there are many similarities, there are also many unique questions for both the occupational DC and the private pension products.”

The source also says EIOPA’s ambition to conduct stress tests for pension funds – examining their ability to deal with market stresses such as interest rate changes – could prove difficult due to the lack of a uniform solvency framework across the affected countries.

“Basically, I guess it would lead to another quantitative impact study,” the source concedes.

Those hoping Van Popta and Leppälä’s scepticism about capital requirements for pension funds will influence their work should be forewarned. The 30 stakeholders are only representing their broad area – such as beneficiaries or employers – and not than the interests of VB or PensionsEurope. They are there to assist EIOPA in its undertakings.

While Barnier is supposedly still eager to release a revised draft of the IORP Directive, with just pillars II and III in place, by December, any further delay could mean the OPSG ends up assisting EIOPA in re-introducing pillar I under the new Commission.

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