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EU insurance watchdog under pressure to scrap dividend ban


(Reuters) — Europe's insurance watchdog believes it is too early to change its guidance on the suspension of dividends for the industry but is facing pressure from insurers and national regulators to change its view.

The European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA) recommended in April that insurers temporarily suspend dividends, bonuses and share buybacks until the financial and economic impact of COVID-19 becomes clearer.

Banking regulators issued lenders with similar recommendations, which are now being reviewed by the European Central Bank and the Bank of England.

Dimitris Zafeiris, EIOPA's head of risk and financial stability, said the organization was closely monitoring risks but that it was too early to lift its guidance for a ban.

“It's not business as usual,” Mr. Zafeiris told the Reuters Events Future of Insurance Europe conference.

Only a stable and solvent insurance sector can help the economy recover from COVID-19, and nobody knows what the exact fallout from the crisis will be once emergency public relief measures have ended, he said.

“We do have a lot of uncertainties in front of us, and we keep on monitoring them,” Mr. Zafeiris said.

“If the situation improves, we may need to change our view.”

Hans de Cuyper, CEO of Belgian insurer Ageas, said that issuing blanket guidance on dividends was not ensuring a level playing field given that some insurers have stronger solvency ratios than others.

“The next guidance into 2021 on dividends and share buybacks should take into account the individual Solvency II situation,” Mr. de Cuyper said, referring to EU capital rules for the industry.

Mr. de Cuyper, speaking at the Future of Insurance Europe conference, also said that most of the insurance sector ended up paying dividends despite the EIOPA recommendations.

Germany's financial regulator BaFin decided not to apply EIOPA's recommendation and allowed Allianz to pay a dividend. Insurers in other EU countries have also made payouts to shareholders.

BaFin President Felix Hufeld said banning distributions cannot be a tool for an extended period of time and he would adopt a pragmatic approach when discussing dividends with insurers in Germany.

“That is exactly the kind of dialogue we are engaging in,” Mr. Hufeld said.

If the balance sheets of individual insurers are strong enough even to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, then BaFin will not prevent any kind of payouts in a “blanket way.”

"We are trying ... to be prudent in the way we apply it. There is no black or white situation," Mr. Hufeld said.

More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here.