PensionsEurope, the European umbrella association for national pension fund bodies, has pushed back against some of the final recommendations made by an expert group on sustainable finance advising the European Commission. 

Matti Leppälä, secretary general of PensionsEurope, said the final report of the High Level Expert Group (HLEG), out today, set out a vision for a more sustainable financial system that aligned capital with the broader values of society.

It contained recommendations that were very important for pension funds, he said. 

Some could widen the choice of sustainable investments and create a common language for the markets through an environmental, social and governance (ESG) classification, or “taxonomy”. This would support “the many pension funds that already take environmental, social and governance issues on board in their investment decisions and engagement strategies”, Leppälä added.

“At the same time,” he continued, “there are countless different ways in which pension funds do responsible investments, depending on national traditions, the type and size of the fund, the position of the sponsoring company and the role of the social partners.

“The EU should stay clear of any prescriptive one-size-fits-all approach. The number of pension funds that choose to proactively invest according to ESG criteria is growing and will continue to do so.”

matti leppala

Matti Leppälä, secretary general of PensionsEurope

As reported yesterday, one of the expert group’s recommendations is that investor duties be “clarified” to extend time horizons and bring greater focus on ESG.

As part of this, the HLEG said pension funds should consult their beneficiaries about sustainability preferences, and reflect these in their investment decision-making. An EU omnibus proposal would ensure that the necessary changes took place across the entire investment chain, it said.

Commenting on IPE’s report yesterday, Randy Bauslaugh, an experienced pensions lawyer at Canadian firm McCarthy Tétrault, said he was not sure a requirement to consult members on their ESG preferences was a good idea in common-law jurisdictions.

“Doesn’t it amount to trustees delegating their decision-making duty to a survey?” he said. “If the purpose of the trust is to provide financial benefits, common law already dictates that fiduciaries ought to be making rational decisions that factor in ESG considerations that are relevant to financial risks and opportunities. Where reliable ESG information is available, they ignore it at their peril.”

At PensionsEurope, Leppälä also took issue with suggestions in the report about revising IORP II, the European pension fund directive. 

“The new IORP II Directive is already very advanced and includes many new provisions on ESG, as part of risk management and investments,” he said. “It would be advisable to first see the impact of these new rules before expanding them.”

PensionsEurope’s comments echoed some of those it made in response to a Commission consultation on some of the early recommendations the HLEG made in its interim report.

The Commission is already pursuing some of the ideas contained in the HLEG’s interim report, and today said it would move to finalise its sustainable finance strategy on the basis of its final recommendations.

Voices across finance 

Stephanie Pfeifer

Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO of the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change

The Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) said it would be studying the HLEG’s final report in detail, but in principle fully supported the priority actions and cross-cutting and sectoral recommendations in the report – in particular, steps to support the clarification of investor duties, to establish an EU sustainability taxonomy, and to confront short-termism in financial markets.

Commenting on the report, Stephanie Pfeifer, CEO of IIGCC, said: “The final report… is both very welcome and very timely.

“For the financial sector to respond effectively to the climate challenge, the EU must signal clear direction and expectations across all economic sectors via an overarching and comprehensive roadmap for sustainable finance which pulls in the same direction as the EU’s 2030 Climate and Energy Package and commitments to the Paris Agreement.”

The insurance view:

Insurance Europe , the trade body for the European insurance industry, said it welcomed the HLEG’s report, in particular the recommendations that the EU’s Solvency II regulatory framework for insurers needed adjustment. It also supported an EU taxonomy for sustainable finance, the need for an increased supply of investable sustainable assets, and a proportionate and careful approach in encouraging disclosure of climate-related factors.

The campaigners’ perspective:

“We are particularly pleased to see the strong focus on clarifying investors’ duties, something that ShareAction has been pushing for since 2010. It is great to see the EU showing leadership in this area and we urge the Commission to now adopt a strong legislative proposal. 

bethan livesey share action

Bethan Livesey, head of policy at ShareAction

“Ordinary people should be at the heart of a sustainable financial system that serves society. We welcome the recognition that beneficiaries’ interests are not limited to financial returns only. We also welcome the renewed focus on retail investors, which was missing from the interim report.

“An accountable and strong Capital Markets Union will only be possible if retail investors can be confident that their money is invested responsibly. We congratulate the HLEG for this inclusion.”

– Bethan Livesey, head of policy at ShareAction , a UK-based responsible investment campaign organisation

The capital markets and investment bank view:

“The Commission’s final report on sustainable finance is a big step in the right direction. The plans to ease capital charges for banks’ green investments, provided they are commensurate with the risks assumed, can play an important part in the development of a Capital Markets Union.”

– Simon Lewis, chief executive at AFME , the association representing Europe’s capital markets and investment banks

However, the association expressed concern with some specific issues in the expert group’s report. It disagreed with the HLEG’s view that sell-side analysts did not consider ESG criteria.

In a statement, AFME said: “Although there is no industry-level best practice on the inclusion of ESG criteria, many firms use their in-house frameworks to integrate such criteria in their research.”

The view from the European banking sector:

“This is an important moment, also for the banking sector. To properly serve society banks need to be able to act constructively when addressing climate change and the decarbonization of industry. Banks can only do so when there are clear definitions and clear rules that also maintain financial stability. These recommendations are the starting point.”

– Wim Mijs, chief executive of the European Banking Federation (EBF)