Attendees of this year’s autumn conference of the German pension fund association Arbeitsgemeinschaft betriebliche Altersversorgung (AbA) in Cologne found an organisation preparing for a new pension era in Germany and across Europe.

The conference was the first under the new AbA chairman Heribert Karch, and had a ‘new broom’ feel to it. There were the little things: for the first time, the association brought together various AbA working groups to reduce the number of conferences. In his opening speech, AbA-managing director Klaus Stiefermann noted that “there are only very few issues anymore that only concern one specific working group”.

Then, there were the subtle changes to the AbA’s logo: a slightly altered tone of blue and a new font - as if the 70-year old association wanted to gently take its members into a new age of pensions.

According to Karch this is what Germany is facing: “A new age of occupational pensions” as he calls the current debate the government started on the future of the German pension system as well as European debates on the subject. Therefore, the AbA published its first manifesto on occupational pensions in over a decade just days before the conference at a Berlin press conference.

Media appearances are another noticeable change under the association’s new stewardship as Karch once told IPE “You have to speak out if you want to be heard”. To facilitate media coverage, the association has introduced capitals to its abbreviation as publications rarely used the typographic rendering of ‘aba’.

In its Pro Occupational Pensions Dialogue - Memorandum for a Re-adjustment of Retirement Provision in Germany, the AbA called for the creation of a permanent working group on occupational pensions to include representatives from the pension industry, the government and the social partners.

In her speech, Annette Niederfranke from the German labour ministry, publically accepted the suggestion and found genuine words of thanks for AbA’s initiative on this “long overdue” step. She also vowed to support the AbA in its fight against Solvency II being applied to occupational pension vehicles “word for word”.

Karch’s thanks for Niederfranke’s support were heartfelt too and he forecasted constructive discussions between the AbA and the labour ministry in the future. He was especially glad to have seen Niederfranke being promoted to the rank of state secretary and the most senior ministry representative apart from minister Ursula van der Leyen herself, just weeks before the AbA conference.

On the conference sidelines, members revealed their doubts on the genuineness of the labour ministry’s support against Solvency II. One delegate pointed out that Niederfranke had only vowed to help prevent Solvency II being applied “word for word” but had not mentioned a definite ‘no’ as some industry representatives would have hoped.

Another perceived threat from Brussels, is the European Court of Justice’s ruling on gender equality. Contrary to many of their European colleagues, some German lawyers fear that the ruling might be applied to existing contracts as well, which would cause a cost explosion in insurance-based schemes.

Scepticism also prevailed regarding the introduction of a pension tracking system in the Netherlands via which each employee can check on the status of their pension benefits in the various pillars. While Stiefermann acknowledged that increased pensions transparency was needed for the public he cautioned that it was not yet clear who would be responsible for publishing this information.

But it was not only European topics that sparked debate at the conference. These were about a proposal for a risk-based pension levy to be introduced for the German insolvency protection vehicle, the PSV.

In the face of almost inevitable hikes in capital requirements for solvability, delegates at the conference for the first time started to consider including Pensionskassen in the PSV-scheme, unthinkable before as these insurance-based schemes are considered to offer sufficient protection against insolvency.

This year’s AbA-Herbsttagung opened up many discussions and left the association and its members with a multitude of topics to deal with in this new pension age.