European insurers breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday that a deal on new capital requirements was less burdensome than initially feared, ending an uncertainty which has been hanging over the sector for many years.
Lawmakers from the European Parliament and representatives of European Union states agreed the new Solvency II rules late on Wednesday to end a 13-year legislative marathon.
The reform will be phased in from January 2016 but top insurers like Prudential, Aviva, Allianz , Axa and Generali have already spent millions of euros in preparation.
The Stoxx Europe 600 Insurance sector index was up 1 percent by 1340 GMT.
Allianz board member Maximilian Zimmerer said a 2016 start was feasible though a challenge for smaller firms, while rival Prudential said the deal looks viable.
“It is fundamentally good news for the industry because we’ve always believed in a risk-based regime with the appropriate definition of risk,” Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of British insurer Prudential, told reporters.
The rules aim to make sure the European industry, which manages investments worth more than 8 trillion euros, holds enough capital to withstand market shocks.
Negotiations had became bogged down over how much of a capital cushion should be held against insurance products that offer long-term guaranteed returns, such as annuities or lump sums on retirement.
The European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA) had alarmed the industry with a compromise on how to “calibrate” capital held against such products.
Wednesday’s deal dilutes this compromise significantly in favour of the industry after Germany, Britain, France and other countries intervened.
Thiam said Prudential had considered re-locating but “things have moved in the right direction so that issue is not as present as before”.
EIOPA Chairman Gabriel Bernardino brushed off the dilution of his proposals, saying uncertainty has been taken away.
“I don’t think that by twisting some calibrations here and there you lose the fundamental, sound principles of Solvency II,” Bernardino told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Bonn, Germany.
The failure to implement Solvency II in 2012 as originally envisaged left many insurers “all dressed up and with nowhere to go”, said Jeremy Irving, a partner at Eversheds lawfirm.
EIOPA has already issued guidance requiring firms to be ready by 2016 and Felix Hufeld, head of insurance at German regulator BaFin, said he would ask Germany’s 90-odd life insurers next summer to do an “as if” calculation on how they would look if fully compliant.
Critics of Wednesday’s deal may not be taking into account that insurers must strengthen their regulatory capital by billions of euros over the coming years to better protect consumers, Hufeld told the conference in Bonn.
A more lenient treatment on capital for some products has been given in the tacit expectation that insurers can no longer argue they won’t be able to invest in the economy.
Policymakers are looking to the huge pools of cash at insurers to build roads, bridges and other infrastructure as banks focus on rebuilding their capital reserves.
“The long-term guarantees allow the regulators and industry the space to ensure safer investment strategies whilst maintaining their vital role on infrastructure projects and corporate bonds, so important for economic growth,” said British EU lawmaker Peter Skinner who was part of the negotiations.
Non-EU insurers will also get a long delay of at least a decade before having to show that their home rules are just as strict as Solvency II, a step that will come as a relief to U.S. firms who feared being locked out of the EU market.
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