May 11, 2020 / 12:37 PM / 15 days ago

EU insurance watchdog says state has role in pandemic business cover

LONDON (Reuters) - National governments must help provide insurance cover for future lockdowns, the industry’s European Union regulator said on Monday, as the private sector cannot afford to provide such broad coverage on its own.

Countries have introduced lockdowns to fight the coronavirus pandemic, forcing companies to close and furlough staff. Businesses are fighting to get insurers to pay business interruption claims as a deep recession beckons.

Some U.S. states may retroactively change insurance contracts to pay such claims, and Britain’s markets watchdog is asking the courts to clarify wordings in business policies.

Gabriel Bernardino, chair of the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA), said it would be wrong to retroactively change policies.

It was also impossible for insurers to control risks like business interruption that is not due to damage like floods or fire, he said.

“If we really want to build more resilience in our societies against situations like this pandemic, there is clearly a need to have in place mechanisms to cover it,” Bernardino told Reuters.

“To be honest, I think it’s only possible by combining public and private elements. I don’t think this is possible for the insurance industry alone to cover it,” Bernardino said.

Britain, France and the United States are already looking at what role the state could play in pandemic cover in the future.

Insurers have been hit on both sides of their balance sheets, as falls in asset prices hit their investments while claims rocket.

“Overall the sector has weathered well this unprecedented situation,” Bernardino said.

“This volatility that we see on equity markets probably will continue, and we have some doubts if the market is already discounting the impact of the GDP contractions that are out there from the various authorities.”

As a precautionary measure, EIOPA’s board “nearly unanimously” called on insurers in the EU to preserve capital by suspending dividends until the outlook becomes clearer.

But Germany’s Allianz, backed by EIOPA board member BaFin, is going ahead with a dividend.

“The final decision is from each and every one of the national authorities,” Bernardino said, adding there was “overwhelming” backing among national regulators to implement EIOPA’s recommendation.

The crisis has also been the first big test of EU insurance rules known as Solvency II, which are being reviewed this year, raising hopes among insurers of a scaling back to some extent.

“We believe the system was working overall quite well and what we see until now during the crisis confirms that,” Bernardino said.

“We don’t anticipate any fundamental changes but there will be lessons that will allow us to do some fine-tuning,” he said.

EIOPA will send its recommendations for changes to the EU’s executive European Commission by the end of the year.

Additional reporting by John O'Donnell in Frankfurt, Editing by Catherine Evans

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