AUSTRIA - Regional restrictions on equity exposure in third-pillar pension vehicles might be detrimental to the funds' performance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has suggested.

The state-sponsored scheme known as Zukunftsvorsorge has grown considerably over the last years but further growth will make it more difficult for the funds to ensure sufficient diversification under the current invetment restrictions, according to an IMF report.

At the moment, funds are required to invest 40% of contributions in stock markets within the European Economic Area which have a low market capitalisation relative to GDP, which includes the Vienna stock exchange (VSE) and those of many Central and Eastern European countries with which the VSE has close ties.

"The limitation constrains diversification to larger, more liquid markets, and thus potentially worsens the risk-return ratio," the IMF explained.

"Portfolio allocation regulations should be based on prudential and investor protection considerations, rather than aim to promote particular markets."

The IMF has also urged the Austria government to review the full guarantees on returns which have to be granted under the Zukunfsvorsorge, as it argued "even if some safety net may be desirable on social grounds" - as "with appropriate provision of information - an individual should be able to make the choice that fits him/her best".

That said, the body also noted "occupational pension fund assets, non-term life insurance and Zukunftsvorsorge pension accounts have grown, but Austrians still rely substantially on state-provided pensions", as social security pensions account for over 90% of current pension benefits in Austria.

The IMF therefore welcomed recent proposals to introduce a form of automatic increase to certain elements of pensions in light of significant increases in longevity - an issue is currently dividing the Austrian government coalition. (See earlier IPE article:Pension deal might break coalition)

The body noted the suggestions contribute "to the financial sustainability of the public pension system".

In general, the IMF noted the "financial soundness and performance indicators for the insurance and pension sectors have generally strengthened in the past several years" especially as the subprime crisis has had very little impact on the Austrian financial sector.
Nevertheless, as the pension sector is growing the IMF recommended the financial supervisor FMA "extend its stress testing of insurance companies' and pension funds' liabilities, and  investigate the use of market-based soundness indicators".

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