- New rules could handicap insurance industry
- Insurers fear volatility in new capital requirements
- Likely to lead to consolidation among medium-sized players
A showdown between major European insurers and European authorities over Solvency 2 is expected to develop over the coming weeks and months over rules setting new minimum capital requirements for the European insurance industry.
At stake is whether Solvency 2, 10 years in the making, can begin to be implemented before the end of 2013, when Solvency 1 regulations are due to expire. Industry sources are concerned that the European Commission (EC) will seek a directive on Solvency 2 – which is the insurance equivalent of Basel III for banks – at all costs before next year. That prospect is putting pressure on the industry to quickly reach a compromise that is acceptable to regulators or deal with a final text that could put them at a competitive disadvantage with insurers based outside of Europe.
“We are working towards a compromise with the [EU] Parliament and the Council of Ministers. I am confident and determined” that a text will be approved, Michel Barnier, European Commissioner in charge of internal markets and regulation, told this news service.
Much of the European industry, including French, German, UK and other insurers, oppose the latest text produced by EIOPA, the European insurance regulator, and endorsed by the EC. They fear it will cause a great deal of volatility in capital requirements, hurt competiveness and hinder the industry’s ability to finance European growth. Insurers, particularly those involved in life and annuities, are major holders of sovereign and corporate bonds, as well as shares of European companies.
The main problem for insurers with the new regulation is the volatility produced by mark-to-market rules. Under Solvency 1, assets are evaluated at historical prices taking into consideration that the liabilities are very long term, sometimes as long as 30 years.
Solvency 2, by contrast, proposes to evaluate assets at market prices in order to have a finer view of their economic value. When spreads change, capital requirements evolve. “Our problem is that the liabilities are long term but assets go up and down,” said a French industry source. This is particularly the case now, with spreads of government bonds varying wildly, he added.
Martina Baumgaertel, head of group regulatory policy at Allianz [ALV GR] in Munich, explained that regulation has to be adapted to the insurance business model: “We have long-term obligations and long-term investments, so spread changes do not really matter.”
The texts now on the table “are intolerable”, said Hugh Savill, director of prudential regulation at the Association of British Insurers (ABI). The major retirement product in Britain is annuities, provided by leading FTSE-listed companies including Legal & General [LGEN LN], Standard Life [SL/ LN] and Prudential [PRU LN] among many others. Clients give their capital to the insurance company in return for a fixed income payout that is guaranteed for life. The industry holds several trillions of pounds in annuities, which are financed by the insurer mainly by buying bonds that are then held to maturity. “The mark to market evaluation is in principle right,” said Savill. “But if you are not going to sell the bonds, it is irrelevant.”
So the British industry is working on a “matching adjustment” so that the discount curve of Solvency 2 takes into account the illiquid nature of British annuities.
There is also alarm in France, where global insurers including AXA [CS FP] could find themselves handicapped. “A regulation that would hurt the competitiveness of the European insurance industry would be worse than no regulation,” said Bernard Spitz, head of the French Insurance Federation (FFSA). “There is a consensus with German, Italian, English, Spanish colleagues that the latest concessions made by the EIOPA fall short of the significant adjustments required to the text.”
The CFO Forum, which represents chief financial officers of major European Insurance companies, has come up with a combination of “counter-cyclical measures”. The idea is to modify, at least to some extent, the evaluation of liabilities when the value of assets changes, to avoid having to add capital at every turn in the market.
EIOPA has considered such proposals to be too advantageous to the industry and has presented its own counter-cyclical measures, which are in turn deemed insufficient by the European industry.
Impact on industry structure
Should an EC directive be finally implemented, it is sure to be much tougher than present regulations, a number of industry leaders surveyed said. This is bound to shake up the industry and encourage consolidation.
A German industry source said this is particularly the case in Germany, which has a number of small and medium-sized companies.
A second industry source and a credit analyst pointed out that German insurers are already at a disadvantage because life insurance contracts provide guaranteed interest payments to customers at a time when yields on bonds are near historical lows.
The credit analyst said the most affected would be mutual life insurers that “have relatively high guarantees on their back book”, under which they are obliged to pay out 3%-4% annually at a time when German bunds are yielding less than 2%. He said that to be able to pay out on those premiums, insurers will need to invest in higher risk assets, including stocks, thereby generating a higher capital requirement. Among listed life insurers, he said Nuernberger Beteiligungs [NBG6 GR] may find itself exposed to the impact.
A mutual insurance industry source agreed that Nuernberger exemplifies the kind of medium-sized regional player that could find itself disadvantaged by the new solvency framework. But he added that the answer for many of the more than 1,000 small and medium insurers in Germany could be in the proportionality principle, which provides for flexible valuation methodologies on the basis of their limited complexity, scale and objectives as mutual insurers or as pension funds operating as insurers under German law.
In France, Life Insurance contracts can be withdrawn at any time, which is seen by regulators as vulnerability under the new Solvency 2 rules. French insurers respond that life insurance contracts in the country carry significant tax advantages that encourage clients to keep them through to maturity.
Even so, according to a French regulation official, the new Solvency 2 framework will encourage small mutual companies to merge.
At the political level, the latest EIOPA text will be the basis for so-called “Trilogues” between the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the EC. Such meetings will take place until the November deadline.
Allianz’s Baumgaertel said finance ministers are well aware of the problems and “are talking to each other”. She believed the absence of agreement would be harmful. “We would have 28 different systems; this would raise, among other things, consumer protection issues.” She warned that the absence of a common framework within Europe will make it impossible to compare products among European insurance companies. “We need a single system within a single European market.”
At the European Parliament level, there is also a feeling of urgency. Jean Paul Gauzes, “coordinator” of the PPE Group, the largest political group of the European Parliament, and a member of ECON (Economic and Monetary Commission), said he is aware the text as it now stands presents serious difficulties, particularly for the German industry.
By Blanca Riemer and Henry Teitelbaum
ECB launches small climate-change unit to lead Lagarde’s green push
FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The European Central Bank is setting up a small team dedicated to climate change to spearhead its efforts to help the transition to a greener economy in the euro zone, ECB President Christine Lagarde said on Monday.
Lagarde has made the environment a priority since taking the helm at the ECB, taking a number of steps to include climate considerations in the central bank’s work as the euro zone’s banking watchdog and main financial institution.
She is now creating a team of around 10 ECB employees, reporting directly to her, to set the central bank’s agenda on climate-related topics.
“The climate change centre provides the structure we need to tackle the issue with the urgency and determination that it deserves,” Lagarde said in a speech.
She said that climate change belonged in the ECB’s remit as it could affect inflation and obstruct the flow of credit to the economy.
The ECB said earlier on Monday it would invest some of its own funds, which total 20.8 billion euros ($25.3 billion) and include capital paid in by euro zone countries, reserves and provisions, in a green bond fund run by the Bank for International Settlement.
More significantly, ECB policymakers are also debating what role climate considerations should play in the institution’s multi-trillion euro bond-buying programme.
So far the ECB has bought corporate bonds based on their outstanding amounts but Lagarde has said the bank might have to consider a more active approach to correct the market’s failure to price in climate risk.
“Our strategy review enables us to consider more deeply how we can continue to protect our mandate in the face of (climate) risks and, at the same time, strengthen the resilience of monetary policy and our balance sheet,” Lagarde said.
(Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Francesco Canepa and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)
What to expect in 2021: Top trends shaping the future of transportation
By Lee Jones, Director of Sales – Grocery, QSR and Selected Accounts for Northern Europe at Ingenico, a Worldline brand
The pandemic has reinforced the need for businesses to undergo digital transformation, which is pivotal in the digital economy. In 2020, we saw the shift to online and cashless payments accelerated as a result of increased social distancing and nationwide restrictions.
The biggest challenge on all businesses into 2021 will be how they continue to adapt and react to the ever changing new normal we are all experiencing. In this context, what should we expect this year and beyond, in terms of developments across key sectors, including transport, parking and electric vehicle (EV) charging?
Mobility as a service (MaaS) and the future of transportation
Social distancing and lockdown measures have brought about a real change in public habits when it comes to transportation. In the last three months alone, we have seen commuter journeys across the globe reduce by at least 70%, while longer-distance travel has fallen by up to 90%. With it, cash withdrawals for payment has drastically reduced by 60%.
Technological advancements, alongside open payments, have unlocked new possibilities across multiple industries and will continue to have a strong impact. Furthermore, travellers are expecting more as part of their basic service. Tap and pay is one of the biggest evolutions in consumer payments. Bringing ease and simplicity to everyday tasks, consumers have welcomed this development to the transport journey. In-app payments are also on the rise, offering customers the ability to plan ahead and remain assured that they have everything they need, in one place, for every leg of their journey. Many local transport networks now have their own apps with integrated timetables, payments, and ticket download capabilities. These capabilities are being enabled by smaller more portable terminals for transport staff, and self-scanning ticketing devices are streamlining the process even further.
Ultimately, the end goal for many transport providers is MaaS – providing an easy and frictionless all-encompassing transport system that guides consumers through the whole journey, no matter what mode of travel they choose. Additionally, payment will remain the key orchestrator that will drive further developments in the transportation and MaaS ecosystems in 2021. What remains critical is balancing the need for a fast and convenient payment with safety and data privacy in order to deliver superior customer experiences.
The EV charging market and the accelerating pace of change
The EV charging market is moving quickly and represents a large opportunity for payments in the future. EVs are gradually becoming more popular, with registrations for EVs overtaking those of their diesel counterparts for the first time in European history this year. What’s more, forecasts indicate that by 2030, there will be almost 42 million public charging points deployed worldwide, as compared with 520,000 registered in 2019.
Our experience and expertise in this industry have enabled us to better understand but also address the challenges and complexities of fuel and EV payments. The current alternating current (AC) based chargers are set to be replaced by their direct charging (DC) counterparts, but merchants must still be able to guarantee payment for the charging provider. Power always needs to be converted from AC to DC when charging an electric vehicle, the technical difference between AC charging and DC charging is whether the power gets converted outside or inside the vehicle.
By offering innovative payment solutions to this market segment, we enable service operators to incorporate payments smoothly into their omnichannel customer experience that also allows businesses to easily develop acceptance and provide a unique omnichannel strategy for EV charging payments. From proximity to online payments, it will support businesses by offering a unique hardware solution optimized for PSD2 and SCA. It will manage both near field communication (NFC) cards and payments from cards/smartphones, as well as a single interface to manage all payments, after sales support and receipt with both ePortal and eReceipts.
Cashless options for parking payments
The ‘new normal’ is now partly defined by a shift in consumer preference for cashless, contactless and mobile or embedded payments. These are now the preferred payment choices when it comes to completing the check-in and check-out process. They are a time-saver and a more seamless way to pay.
Drivers are more self-reliant and empowered than ever before, having adopted technologies that work to make their life increasingly efficient. COVID-19 has given rise to both ePayment and omnichannel solutions gaining in popularity. This has been due to ticketless access control based on license plate recognition or the tap-in/tap-out experience, as well as embedded payments or mobile solutions for street parking.
These smart solutions help consider parking services more broadly as a part of overall mobility or shopping experience. Therefore, operators must rapidly adapt and scale new operational practices; accept electronic payment, update new contactless limits, introduce additional payments means, refund the user or even to reflect changing customer expectations to keep pace.
2021: the journey ahead
This year, we expect to see an even greater shift towards a cashless society across these key sectors, making the buying experience quicker and more convenient overall.
As a result, merchants and operators must make the consumer experience their top priority as trends shift towards simplicity and convenience, ensuring online and mobile payments processes are as secure as possible.
Opportunities and challenges facing financial services firms in 2021
By Paul McCreadie, Partner at ECI Partners, the leading growth-focused mid-market private equity firm
Despite 2020 being an enormously disruptive year for businesses, our latest Growth Index research reveals that almost three quarters (74%) of mid-market financial services companies remained resilient throughout the pandemic.
This is positive news, especially when taking into account the economic disruption that financial services firms have had to go through since the crisis began. No doubt 2021 will also hold its own challenges – as well as opportunities – for firms in this sector.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest short-term concern for financial firms for the year ahead involved changing pandemic guidance, with 42% citing this as a top concern. With the UK currently experiencing a third lockdown many financial services businesses will have already had to adapt to rapidly changing guidance, even since being surveyed.
Businesses will also be considering the need to invest in working from home operations, and there may be uncertainty over re-opening offices on a permanent basis. According to the research 30% of financial services firms are planning to adopt remote working on a permanent basis, so decisions need to be made now about whether they invest more in enabling staff to do this, or in their current office premises.
Due to Brexit, UK financial services firms are no longer able to passport their services into Europe, which may cause problems, particularly in the next 12 months as the Brexit deal is ironed out and the agreement is put into practice. Despite this, Brexit was only cited by 24% of financial firms as a short-term concern. While it’s comforting to see that UK financial firms aren’t hugely concerned about Brexit at this juncture, it is going to be vital for the ongoing success of the industry that the UK is able to get straightforward access to Europe and operate there without issue, otherwise we may see these concern levels rise.
Looking ahead to longer-term concerns for financial services businesses, the top concern was global economic downturn, of which 40% of firms cited this as a worry when looking beyond 2021.
Investing and adopting tech
Traditionally, the financial services sector has been slow to adopt digital transformation. Issues with legacy systems, coupled with often large amounts of data and a reluctance to undertake potentially risky change processes, have meant many firms are behind the curve when it comes to technology adoption. It’s therefore promising to see that so much has changed over the last year, with 45% of financial services firms having invested in AI and machine learning technology – making it the top sector to have invested in this space over the last 12 months.
One business that exemplifies the benefits of investing in machine learning is Avantia, the technology-enabled insurance provider behind HomeProtect. The business has undergone a large tech transformation in the last few years, investing in an underlying machine learning platform and an in-house data science team, which provides them with capabilities to return a quote to over 98% of applicants in under one second. This tech investment has allowed them to become more scalable, provide a more stable platform, improve customer service and consequently, grow significantly.
This demonstrates how this kind of tech can help businesses to leverage tech in order to offer a better customer experience, and retain and grow market share through winning new customers. This resilience should combat some of the concerns that firms will face in the next year.
Additionally, half (51%) of financial services firms have invested in cybersecurity tech over the last year, which allows them to protect the platforms on which they operate and ensure ongoing provision of solutions to their customers.
Clearly, there is a benefit of international revenues and profits on business resilience. In practice, this meant that businesses that weren’t internationally diversified in 2020 struggled more during the pandemic. In fact, the businesses considered to be the least resilient through the 2020 crisis were three times more likely to only operate domestically.
Perhaps an attribute towards financial services firms’ resilience in 2020, therefore, was the fact that 53% already had a presence in Europe throughout 2020 and 38% had a presence in North America. This internationalisation gave them an advantage that allowed them to weather the many storms of 2020.
Looking at how to capitalise on this throughout the rest of 2021, half (51%) of are planning overseas growth in Europe over the next 12 months, and 43% in North America. Further plans to expand internationally is not only a good sign for growth, but should further increase resilience within the sector.
While there are many concerns, the fact that financial services businesses are investing in technology like AI and machine learning, as well as still planning to grow internationally, means that they are providing themselves with the best chances of dealing with any upcoming challenges effectively.
In order to maintain their growth and resilience throughout the next 12 months, it’s imperative that they continue to put their customers first, invest in technology and remain on the front foot of digital change.
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