UPDATE 3-EU may delay tough new capital rules for insurers

Wed Sep 19, 2012 12:46pm EDT

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By Angelika Stricker

BRUSSELS, Sept 19 (Reuters) - The European Union may have to postpone strict new capital rules for insurers because of wrangling between member countries over the final shape of the new regulations, the official in charge of the project acknowledged on Wednesday.

Michel Barnier, the European Union commissioner responsible for regulation, on Tuesday proposed delaying the so-called Solvency II regime by one year, a source involved in talks over the rules told Reuters.

A spokesman for Barnier said the commissioner had suggested a final agreement should wait until tests to gauge the impact of the rules are completed in March 2013, but added that it was too early to say whether the January 2014 start date would have to be put back as a result.

"That is something that we will have to clarify with parliament and council over the weeks to come. The commissioner put one scenario on the table because he thinks it's a useful... avenue to unblock the negotiations," the spokesman said at a press conference.

A delay would prolong uncertainty over the industry's future capital requirements, though leading European insurers said that it would be better to postpone the new rules than push through measures that might have to be amended later.

"If this news report is confirmed, the additional year would certainly give all of those involved the time to carefully work through a range of important open questions," Immo Querner, finance chief of German insurer Talanx, told Reuters.

"A delay for a short period of time is better than rushing through something that would require a lengthy correction."

Solvency II, ten years in the making and designed to force insurers to hold capital reserves in strict proportion to the risks they underwrite, has been held up by disagreements over how the cash buffer for long-term life insurance contracts should be calculated.

The setback mirrors delays with other new rules for banks and derivatives markets as regulators face pushback from industry and politicians.

European governments, keen to avoid onerous capital charges that could make pensions more costly, favour different calculation methods depending on their respective insurers' business models, leading to deadlock in talks over the final draft of Solvency II.

CLARITY MUST PREVAIL

Europe's top insurance regulator called for a clear timetable for the new rules to come into force.

"We need to be quite clear that we cannot go back," Gabriel Bernardino, the Chairman of regulator the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority, told lawmakers in the European Parliament.

"Solvency I that we have in place... doesn't capture the risks that are out there," he said. "We need to implement Solvency II. We need a clear timetable."

Insurers struck a different tone.

"We welcome the postponement as it allows (us) to resolve still-open questions and sufficiently test the effects of any Solvency II rules prior to finalising the directive," Allianz , Europe's biggest insurer, said in a statement. "Sound principles and clarity must prevail over readiness."

A further delay to Solvency II, originally intended to come into force this year, would be politically embarrassing for the EU, which had intended the regime to serve as a global benchmark for other countries.

Industry speculation of a fresh delay has been mounting since July, when a round of talks between EU officials and lawmakers failed to produce a deal before the European Parliament's month-long summer break.

"I think it's a disappointment," said Paul Clark, insurance partner at consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers. "I suspect it will ultimately have some dilutive effect on the influence of Europe on the international stage."

"I think it would be difficult to respect the 2014 deadline because there are a number of unresolved issues," said Mark Baxter, deputy chief risk officer at Anglo-South African insurer Old Mutual. "To suddenly have them finalised and try to go live by 2014 would be an impossible ask for a significant number of firms."

Insurance Europe, the pan-European industry body, declined to comment, as did the Association of British Insurers, which represents Europe's biggest insurance market.

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