Germany has surprised the European Commission (EC) by suddenly insisting that stiffer data protection controls are incorporated into the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which began earlier this year, and for which the second round has started this week. For those of you who have not heard of it before (understandable, as the negotiations so far have had a deliberately low profile), the purpose of the TTIP is to create a single transatlantic market, in which all regulatory differences between the United States US and the EU are gradually removed. The EC calls it “the biggest trade deal in the world”.
As the EC goes on to say:
On top of cutting tariffs across all sectors, the EU and the US want to tackle barriers behind the customs border – such as differences in technical regulations, standards and approval procedures. The TTIP negotiations will also look at opening both markets for services, investment, and public procurement. They could also shape global rules on trade.
Concerns have started to emerge about the massive transfer of power from governments to corporations that the final deal might allow. However Germany’s intervention on data protection is just the latest of a list of reasons that have been advanced for why the TTIP talks are unlikely to go anywhere. From the legislative schlerosis of the US, to protectionist instincts on both sides recently strengthened by austerity, to French paternalism towards their film industry, to European fears about an influx of GM foods, the TTIPing point will never be reached, they say. So nothing to worry about then.
Or is there? A document published last year by the US Chamber of Commerce and BusinessEurope explains how it would be able to overturn existing legislation which got in its way. And if the long tortuous progress of Solvency 2’s implementation date, the bureaucratic equivalent of the man with the end is nigh sandwich board on his back, has taught us anything, it is that unimplemented regulatory frameworks can still have massive impacts. Just this month it was revealed that the best funded pension schemes in the FTSE 100 are insurers, precisely because of the impact of those schemes on insurers’ solvency capital requirements under Pillar 1 of Solvency 2. And the clear rebuff to EIOPA from exporting these requirements to occupational pension schemes has not prevented the work to develop a framework for imposing them from continuing.
So what would TTIP mean for defined benefit (DB) pension schemes? Well, at first sight, not very much. US DB schemes tend to have funding targets equivalent to FRS17 levels, which would be seen as at the weak end of UK funding targets. However, as we have seen with the process of market harmonisation in the EU, horse trading may lead to the US being stuck with stiffer requirements imported from the EU on pensions in order to maintain subsidies for US farmers, say.
And there are two features of the US DB landscape which would be an issue for many UK DB schemes.
The first is the recovery plan length, which typically does not exceed 7 years in the US. Possibly not too onerous in many cases, if coupled with a FRS17-type funding target, but the EIOPA caravan has surely travelled too far for any dilution of funding target to be allowed at this stage. A 7 year recovery plan would however represent a considerable increase in contribution requirements for many schemes within the UK’s current funding environment.
The second is the restrictions placed on US pension schemes which fall below prescribed funding levels. If the funding level falls below 80%, no scheme amendments are allowed which would increase benefits until the funding level has first been restored to 80% or above, and certain types of benefit payments are restricted. These restrictions become much more stringent below 60% funding, when benefit accrual must cease and the range of benefits which cannot be paid out is extended to cover “unpredictable” contingent events.
We may not be out of the woods of Solvency 2 yet as far as DB pension schemes are concerned. But even if we do manage to break out of EIOPA’s grip, it may be only to find ourselves surrounded by a larger forest.