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The political economy of pension financialisation: public policy responses to the crisis

Anke Hassel (Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI) of the Hans-Böckler-Foundation) & Tobias Wiß (Johannes Kepler University Linz)

By Tobias Wiß

Financialisation – the increasing reliance of society, the economy and politics on financial market solutions – has become a key feature of post-industrial economies. Pension reforms in recent decades reduced benefit levels of public pensions and expanded non-state – occupational and personal – pre-funded pensions, resulting not only in a process of privatisation but ultimately in the financialisation of pensions. As the result, pension policy is not only a social policy that affects retirement income, but also a financial one that impacts savings rates, corporate finance and, indirectly, corporate behaviour.

The first JEPP special issue in 2019 on “The political economy of pension financialisation: public policy responses to the crisis” edited by Anke Hassel and Tobias Wiß addresses how and why pension reforms came to rely more on financial markets and how public policy reacted to the financial crisis.

The collection of articles sheds light on pre-funded private pensions as one key component of financialisation, as they turn savings into investment via financial services providers. Public pension systems face financial pressures, resulting from ageing and rising public debt, while financial services are keen to move into the market of private pension provision. The financial crisis has triggered policy responses including shifts in investment strategies and also a re-assessment of the role of pre-funded private pensions as a complementary, rather than a superior, source of old-age income.

The special issue focusses on three main issues: The emergence of pension financialisation, reactions to financial crises and regulatory variation.

Politics and reform packages have mattered for the introduction of private pensions and especially minimum benefits in Germany. The overview of the historical development of pension financialisation in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden lays down how the social partners (trade unions and employer associations) managed to organise pre-funded pensions collectively allowing that financialised pensions serve social interests.

With regard to responses to financial crises, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK show processes of reinforcement instead of a weakening of pension financialisation.

A further set of articles looks more detailed at regulatory variation: The role of organised interests including adaptions of their strategies in times of financialisation, the influence of investment professionals promoting liability driven investment and the independent role of the state in shaping regulatory decisions. Apart from nation-states, the European Union does not promote a coherent pension financialisation agenda as one might expect. Instead, the EU’s pension strategy is rather accidental and multi-faceted, consisting of a mix of market creation, emulation and correction. In sum, it seems that pension financialisation and the broader financialisation of the economy are here to stay, despite negative developments during and after the financial crisis. Governments are quite aware that pre-funded pensions play a role for corporate finance, economic growth and financial markets in general.

Political and instrumental leadership in major EU reforms. The role and influence of the EU institutions in setting-up the Fiscal Compact

Sandrino Smeets (Radboud University Nijmegen) & Derek Beach (Aarhus University)

The crises that have beset the EU in the past decade have provided plenty of opportunities for actors populating the EU’s political system to step up and assume political leadership. A product of the eurozone and sovereign debt crises, the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance – or short, the Fiscal Compact – has been widely attributed to the political leadership of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. However, these accounts have unfairly overlooked the critical role EU institutions have played in ensuring a swift passage of the Fiscal Compact, say Sandrino Smeets and Derek Beach. In their article “Political and instrumental leadership in major EU reforms. The role and influence of the EU institutions in setting-up the Fiscal Compact” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Sandrino and Derek employ a process-tracing design to highlight the leadership of EU institutions, such as the Legal Service of the Council Secretariat. The findings of their analysis have wider implications for our understanding of how the European Council’s enhanced presence in EU decision-making has affected the role of EU institutions. Sandrino and Derek’s work suggests that “the informal and ‘isolated’ character of decision-making at the European Council level, paradoxically, created more instead of less dependence on EU institutions to translate the broad […] priorities [of Heads of State and Government] into actual reforms.”

Analysing the trade-off between transparency and efficiency in the Council of the European Union

Stéphanie Novak (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice) & Maarten Hillebrandt (University of Bielefeld)

Negotiating behind closed doors allows policy-makers to speak their minds freely and secures the efficiency of decision-making processes. This argument has long served members of the Council of the European Union as a justification to refuse public disclosure of documents in ongoing decision-making procedures. In their article “Analysing the trade-off between transparency and efficiency in the Council of the European Union” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Stéphanie Novak and Maarten Hillebrandt probe the veracity of claims that a trade-off exists between the public’s ability to follow negotiations in the Council and the latter’s efficiency. Drawing on data from the Council’s replies to citizens’ applications requesting access to undisclosed documents as well as interviews with Council members, Stéphanie and Maarten show that the effect of transparency on the Council’s efficiency is far from unidimensional. Their analysis calls into question “any reductive representation of the relation between transparency and efficiency as a ‘weighing scale’ trade-off and the idea that these two legitimating values would be unconditionally incompatible.”

The Europeanization of national judiciaries: definitions, indicators and mechanisms

Urszula Jaremba (University of Utrecht) & Juan A. Mayoral (University of Copenhagen)

Tasked with enforcing the rights derived from EU law in Member States, national judges play a critical role in the process of European integration. However, we still know very little about how European law shapes the functioning of EU Member States’ judiciaries, say Urszula Jaremba and Juan A. Mayoral. In their article “The Europeanization of national judiciaries: definitions, indicators and mechanisms” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Urszula and Juan offer three solutions to foster our understanding of the Europeanization of national judiciaries: a conceptualisation of Europeanization that captures the attitudes and profiles of national judges, a range of indicators that allow us to measure changes in attitudes and behaviour among national judges, and a distinction between utility-driven and socialization mechanisms that can explain these changes. Due to its complexity, mapping the effect of EU law on Member States’ courts is an ambitious exercise. Taking a step towards achieving this goal, Urszula and Juan’s contribution “opens up a whole new stream in the socio-legal research agenda that is crucial for a more comprehensive understanding of the processes of Europeanization of national courts.”

EU environmental policy in times of crisis

Charlotte Burns (University of Sheffield), Peter Eckersley (Nottingham Trent University) & Paul Tobin (University of Manchester)

Ever since expanding supranational environmental policy in the 1980s, the EU has carefully crafted a reputation as a global environmental leader. Yet, a series of recent academic contributions claim that the post-2009 economic recession and a growing sense of Euroscepticism across Member States have left their mark on the EU’s environmental policy ambition. In their article “EU environmental policy in times of crisis” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Charlotte Burns, Peter Eckersley and Paul Tobin analyse whether the past decade’s conglomerate of crises has effectively dismantled the EU’s environmental policy ambition. Identifying all environmental legislation proposed and adopted by the EU between 2004 and 2014, Charlotte, Peter and Paul show that the EU’s environmental policy output indeed dropped in the immediate aftermath of the 2009 economic crisis. Notwithstanding this short-term effect, evidence from interviews with 35 policy-makers in Brussels suggests that other factors, including an increasing diversity among EU Member States and the maturity of the acquis communautaire, played a much more consequential role in the slowing down of the EU’s environmental policy ambition. The evidence presented in Charlotte, Peter and Paul’s contribution challenges perceptions “of a crisis ridden Union intent upon rolling back its environmental ambitions, but of a surprisingly resilient environmental policy actor that in the face of enormous challenges managed to keep the show on the road.”

Victims of their own success abroad? Why the withdrawal of US transparency rules is hindered by diffusion to the EU and Canada

Bjorn Kleizen (University of Antwerp)

Existing research has provided ample evidence that in globalized markets, regulatory policies introduced by influential states often diffuse to other jurisdictions and stoke policy change beyond their own borders. In his article “Victims of their own success abroad? Why the withdrawal of US transparency rules is hindered by diffusion to the EU and Canada” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Bjorn Kleizen argues that the diffusion of regulatory rules can come back to bite legislators seeking to change them in their original jurisdiction. Bjorn provides an in-depth case study of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw payment transparency regulations for extractive industries, which had been introduced by the previous U.S. administration. He shows that the EU and Canada’s decision to emulate Obama-era practices meant that U.S. oil, gas and mineral multinationals were still faced with disclosure rules pursuant to EU and Canadian law, undermining the effectiveness of U.S. lawmakers’ attempts to reduce the regulatory burdens. Bjorn’s argument suggests that when “states co-operate to create rules that are applicable to each other’s companies, the layering of these various rules may create a difficult-to-remove multilateral framework.”

How do supreme audit institutions manage their autonomy and impact?

Jon Pierre (University of Gothenburg) & Jenny de Fine Licht (University of Gothenburg)

Over the past decades, institutions tasked with auditing public service providers have experienced a remarkable transformation of their portfolio of responsibilities. Supreme audit institutions no longer see their role confined to the identification of issues but work closely with their auditees to drive public management reform. Supreme audit institutions’ new role comes with a caveat, however, say Jon Pierre and Jenny de Fine Licht. In their article “How do supreme audit institutions manage their autonomy and impact? A comparative analysis” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Jon and Jenny highlight that auditors who engage in continuous dialogue with their auditees are at risk to compromise their autonomy from the latter. Case studies of supreme audit institutions in Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden show how these institutions try to balance autonomy with the need to cooperate with public service providers. Results from their analyses suggest that there appears to be no silver bullet to resolve this dilemma but rather “different blends and logics of auditing that are reflected in different organizational arrangements” to manage the tension between opening-up to external actors and the safeguarding of auditors’ autonomy.

Regulating European Union lobbying: in whose interest?

Adriana Bunea (University of Southampton)

The regulation of interest group participation in the EU’s policy-making process has long been the source of contention among the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council. While the Council had long resisted any attempts to regulate its interactions with private actors, EU Member States recently signalled their support for an Interinstitutional Agreement on a Mandatory Transparency Register advocated by the European Commission. In her article “Regulating European Union lobbying: in whose interest?” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Adriana Bunea argues that the key to this sudden shift in the Council’s position lies with the Commission’s strategy when formulating the agreement. Following a public consultation process on the agreement’s proposal, the Commission proved responsive to the input from stakeholders speaking on behalf of the public. Adriana finds that this strategy allowed the Commission to act as a legitimate policy initiator representative of public preferences, fostering its negotiation leverage vis-à-vis the Council. Her analysis suggests that on this issue “with high public salience and visibility, the Commission was ready to trade long-standing policy collaborators for a realignment with stakeholders that better served its contemporaneous needs for democratic legitimacy.”

Explaining institutional strength: the case of national human rights institutions in Europe and its Neighbourhood

Corina Lacatus (University of Edinburgh)

National human rights institutions play a critical part in the effective implementation of human rights law at the national level. Illustrated by the pursuit of illiberal agendas of the current administrations in Hungary and Poland, national human rights institutions may have to fulfil their roles in increasingly hostile environments. In her article “Explaining institutional strength: the case of national human rights institutions in Europe and its Neighbourhood” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Corina Lacatus offers original data capturing the strength of national human rights organizations across 50 countries in Europe and its neighbourhood, and demonstrates that some human rights institutions are better equipped to withstand external pressure than others. Her data shows that EU member states generally support stronger national human rights institutions than their non-member neighbours, arguing that “the influence of the EU on institutional strength may be tied to processes of norm sharing through learning and persuasion, which are more effective once countries are integrated in the network of member states.”

The paradox of human rights conditionality in EU trade policy

Katharina L. Meissner (University of Vienna) & Lachlan McKenzie (University of Melbourne)

Despite its reputation as a champion of human rights, the European Parliament rarely takes a tough stance on including human rights conditionality clauses in its free trade agreements with third countries. Hence, many observers were baffled when the European Parliament insisted on such conditionality clauses in its negotiations over a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Given Canada firmly opposed these clauses, why risk derailing highly salient trade negotiations if your negotiation partner has a respectable human rights record anyway? In their article “The paradox of human rights conditionality in EU trade policy: when strategic interests drive policy outcomes” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Katharina L. Meissner and Lachlan McKenzie offer an explanation to this puzzle that centres on the European Parliament’s strategic interests. Katharina and Lachlan argue that “the EP identified human rights conditionality as a ‘strategic issue’ because human rights made it appear as a unique supporter of legitimate and public interests.” In light of high-profile albeit contentious negotiations, taking risks in investing its political resources to insist on inclusion of non-commercial objectives in CETA was likely to pay off and promised to strengthen the EP’s public profile as a champion of human rights.