Monday, March 12, 2007

The chocolate connection

Last Tuesday saw an interesting convention on the shores of lake Geneva at the sumptuous estate of Baron Rothschild and his company. The topic of the well attended conference was pan-European pensions in general and the Belgian incarnation thereof in particular. The list of speakers could not have been of higher calibre: The Prime Minister together with two cabinet ministers and high level representatives of the EU Commission and the Belgian pensions supervisor. Their objective was to introduce the Belgian legal framework for the newly created legal entity Organisation for Financing Pensions (OFP). They did this quite effectively, albeit on the only neutral territory in Europe where the Pensions Directive is not applicable.

The OFP seems to be a highly attractive entity to provide pan-European pensions with. It operates on zero (income, capital, VAT) tax, it can provide solidarity across several pension plans (which is attractive for efficient capital allocation), it reflects no other restrictions on asset management than the Directive's prudent person principle, it may rely on Belgium's extensive network of double taxation treaties, it takes advantages of Belgium's recent transition to EET, it is not encumbered by a Pensions Protection Fund levy and last, but by no means least, the valuation of its liabilities may be based on a discount rate that incorporates expected returns, thus may go as high as 6%. A word of caution may be in order here, though: It is not clear whether the long term consensus expected return used to derive that attractive discount rate takes into consideration recent literature on the proper calculation of expected rates of return.

Jean-Pierre Steiner of Nestlé Capital Advisers shed some cold water on participants' hopes that pan-European pension plans might fully replace local plans in the near future. In his view, this is an ambitious long-term objective reaching beyond his active lifetime. Nevertheless, he put Nestlé's considerable weight behind the support of Belgium as the currently most attractive location for pan-European pension funds.

Also of interest was Mr Van Hulle, the EU Commission's representative's comment that he wasn't opposed to supervisory shopping, which is of course tantamount to regulatory shopping - something that tends to be frowned upon elsewhere. Equally interesting to Swiss listeners was Mr Wymeersch's note that Belgian first pillar institutions may be falling under the Directive, which seems to be in direct contradiction to the Directive's scope and is of particular interest to Liechtenstein as well.

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