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Swedish banks ‘a safe haven’ from euro crisis

Swedish and Norwegian banks say they have seen an influx of foreign investors looking for a safe haven from the turmoil of the troubled eurozone.

Swedish banks 'a safe haven' from euro crisis

But while financial institutions in the Scandinavian countries may be as safe as houses, frothy real estate markets have pushed consumer debt to record levels.

In Stockholm’s trendy Vasastan district, a 10 square metre home once used to house the building’s caretaker last month sold for 1.35 million kronor ($204,000).

For investors, the case for placing money in Sweden and Norway is largely based on the fact that their currencies are seen as less risky than the beleaguered euro. Neither country is a member of the eurozone, and Norway is not even a member of the EU.

Moreover, their export-driven economies have been doing well, their financial systems have been largely unscathed by the international crisis, and Norway’s oil industry has been cheered by rising prices and a string of oil and gas finds over the past year.

At Norway’s largest bank DNB, a special unit has been set up to deal with the growing number of inquiries from overseas.

“Over the past year we’ve seen growing interest from foreign clients not just in private banking but also from regular retail and corporate banking customers,” said Ingrid Tjønneland, DNB’s head of private banking, which targets high net worth individuals.

The trend began two years ago with a growing number of German investors depositing money in Norwegian banks, but has spread to investors from all over

the eurozone, she added.

A spokeperson for Scandinavia’s largest bank Nordea said that although the phenomenon is more pronounced in Norway, some central banks have raised their

Swedish krona-denominated holdings in the wake of the euro crisis.

“We’re seeing large inflows into (Norwegian and Swedish) fixed income funds,” said Claes Maahlen, head of trading strategy at investment bank Handelsbanken Capital Markets.

Anatoli Annenkov, an economist at Societe Generale in London, noted that the low trading volumes of Scandinavian currencies meant that they could be difficult to sell if there is another global shock to the financial system, but added that he remains “relatively positive” on Norway’s krone and Sweden’s krona.

While the financial crisis has seen banks in other countries tightening credit and consumers subsequently lowering their debt levels, the strong economies of Norway and Sweden have done little to stop a surge in property prices.

The Norwegian property market has risen by almost 25 percent in the past five years, making it the strongest performer in the industrialised world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, consumer debt has spiked. Swedish households’ average debt as a share of their disposable income rose to almost 170 percent

last year. The Norwegian ratio crossed the 200 percent mark earlier this year.

Sky-high property prices are increasingly putting the squeeze on middle class families in the major cities.

Annika Borg, a 29-year old business intelligence consultant, told AFP that although she and her partner both work full time, they still can’t afford a house with a garden in the Swedish capital.

Instead the couple recently settled for a two-bedroom apartment in a suburb ahead of having their first child, with the hope of one day getting a garden for their family as they move up the property ladder.

“That’s our hope, but where that house would be located is another question,” Borg said.

The high indebtedness of home owners makes them more vulnerable to any future rise in the interest rate.

“While household debt is at an all time high, interest costs are nearly at an all time low,” said Shakeb Syed, chief economist at Norwegian stock broker Sparebank1 Markets.

On Wednesday, credit rating institute Moody’s warned that Norwegian banks “are sensitive” to the housing market.

On the other side of the border, minutes from the latest meeting of the Swedish central bank show that four of its six policymakers were concerned with the level of household debt.

However, few believe the countries will see the type of real estate crash that in recent years has hit countries like Ireland, Spain and the United States.

Healthy government finances and low unemployment rates, especially in Norway, are underpinning the market.

Both countries also lack a crucial ingredient of most housing bubbles: An increase in the number of homes being built. For more than a decade, the supply of new housing in Norway and Sweden has trailed that of other European countries.

Critics point to onerous planning laws, high construction costs and a failure to invest in infrastructure in urban growth areas.

“Prices have risen the most in city centres. I think it would have been a good idea to expand the transportation network around the big cities,” Syed of Sparebank1 Markets said.

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EUROPEAN UNION

Pensions in the EU: What you need to know if you’re moving country

Have you ever wondered what to do with your private pension plan when moving to another European country?

Pensions in the EU: What you need to know if you're moving country

This question will probably have caused some headaches. Fortunately a new private pension product meant to make things easier should soon become available under a new EU regulation that came into effect this week. 

The new pan-European personal pension product (PEPP) will allow savers to take their private pension with them if they move within the European Union.

EU rules so far allowed the aggregation of state pensions and the possibility to carry across borders occupational pensions, which are paid by employers. But the market of private pensions remained fragmented.

The new product is expected to benefit especially young people, who tend to move more frequently across borders, and the self-employed, who might not be covered by other pension schemes. 

According to a survey conducted in 16 countries by Insurance Europe, the organisation representing insurers in Brussels, 38 percent of Europeans do not save for retirement, with a proportion as high as 60 percent in Finland, 57 percent in Spain, 56 percent in France and 55 percent in Italy. 

The groups least likely to have a pension plan are women (42% versus 34% of men), unemployed people (67%), self-employed and part-time workers in the private sector (38%), divorced and singles (44% and 43% respectively), and 18-35 year olds (40%).

“As a complement to public pensions, PEPP caters for the needs of today’s younger generation and allows people to better plan and make provisions for the future,” EU Commissioner for Financial Services Mairead McGuinness said on March 22nd, when new EU rules came into effect. 

The scheme will also allow savers to sign up to a personal pension plan offered by a provider based in another EU country.

Who can sign up?

Under the EU regulation, anyone can sign up to a pan-European personal pension, regardless of their nationality or employment status. 

The scheme is open to people who are employed part-time or full-time, self-employed, in any form of “modern employment”, unemployed or in education. 

The condition is that they are resident in a country of the European Union, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein (the European Economic Area). The PEPP will not be available outside these countries, for instance in Switzerland. 

How does it work?

PEPP providers can offer a maximum of six investment options, including a basic one that is low-risk and safeguards the amount invested. The basic PEPP is the default option. Its fees are capped at 1 percent of the accumulated capital per year.

People who move to another EU country can continue to contribute to the same PEPP. Whenever a consumer changes the country of residence, the provider will open a new sub-account for that country. If the provider cannot offer such option, savers have the right to switch provider free of charge.  

As pension products are taxed differently in each state, the applicable taxation will be that of the country of residence and possible tax incentives will only apply to the relevant sub-account. 

Savers who move residence outside the EU cannot continue saving on their PEPP, but they can resume contributions if they return. They would also need to ask advice about the consequences of the move on the way their savings are taxed. 

Pensions can then be paid out in a different location from where the product was purchased. 

Where to start?

Pan-European personal pension products can be offered by authorised banks, insurance companies, pension funds and wealth management firms. 

They are regulated products that can be sold to consumers only after being approved by supervisory authorities. 

As the legislation came into effect this week, only now eligible providers can submit the application for the authorisation of their products. National authorities have then three months to make a decision. So it will still take some time before PEPPs become available on the market. 

When this will happen, the products and their features will be listed in the public register of the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA). 

For more information:

https://www.eiopa.europa.eu/browse/regulation-and-policy/pan-european-personal-pension-product-pepp/consumer-oriented-faqs-pan_en 

https://www.eiopa.europa.eu/browse/regulation-and-policy/pan-european-personal-pension-product-pepp_en 

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK. 

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