«The coro­na cri­sis has brought our core prin­ci­ples to the fore»

Interview30 June 2020

Our lives in 2020 are dominated by the corona crisis. Nonetheless, sustainability and reform of the pension system remain central challenges that we must continue to address. The partial revision of the Insurance Contract Act, a piece of legislation dating back more than 100 years, has laid the foundations for the future relationship between insurance companies and their customers.

Insurers endeavour to predict potential risk scenarios and calculate their costs. Did you see the corona crisis coming?

Rolf Dörig: Insurers use models to calculate risks and their consequences. That’s one of the basics of our business. But I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the impact the virus would have on society and all our lives.

Thomas Helbling: Where everyday activities are banned for our own protection and we’re not even allowed to visit close family members – no, it’s not something many people will have imagined happening...

Rolf Dörig und Thomas Helbling

Despite coronavirus, the focus on sustainability remains: SIA chairman Rolf Dörig in conversation with CEO Thomas Helbling.

When the Federal Council ordered businesses to close, insurers quickly became the target of heavy criticism. Can you understand why?

Thomas Helbling: Totally. The order from Bern to shut down overnight came as a shock to all the affected SMEs. In those circumstances, your first instinct will be to hunt out your insurance policy to check whether it covers a situation like this.

Rolf Dörig: As insurers, our priority under lockdown was to maintain our business as well as we could and meet our obligations to our customers. For years now, private insurance companies have been paying out CHF 139 million a day in pensions and claims. In a crisis like the one we’re living through at the moment, it’s important to ensure that recipients can continue to rely on these payments.

But there was also an appeal for greater goodwill.

Thomas Helbling: ... Although we completely understand all those who hoped that their insurance would deliver more, insurers can and should not overturn contractual agreements due to the extraordinary situation we are facing. Assessing risks and calculating appropriate premiums is precision work and we have no choice but to observe these rules in the event of a claim. The mechanics of this finely calibrated system will work only if we are able to se†le claims for which insurance cover exists. Nevertheless, the SIA recommended at the beginning of the crisis that its member companies take appropriate measures in order to help SMEs affected by this extraordinary situation.

Rolf Dörig: In retrospect, we were preaching to the converted there. Although our member companies quite rightly insisted on upholding contractual terms, that does not mean they have not acted in a spirit of goodwill or without solidarity. During the crisis, all insurers have found various ways of assisting SMEs and have given out a lot of money in the process. A long list of these emergency aid measures can be found on our website

Thomas Helbling: Solidarity in a crisis is one thing. But looking ahead is equally important. There’s a real danger of a second wave or a new pandemic. We contacted the government immediately and have been working with it on solutions in case of a repetition. Although the risk is very high, we have to find ways of making it insurable in the future. We want to contribute to the security of our SMEs.

Despite coronavirus, the focus on sustainability remains.

The corona crisis has overshadowed the subject of sustainability – was the green wave just a passing fad aŽer all?

Thomas Helbling: Not at all. Living with the pandemic will leave its mark and may even accelerate the trend towards sustainability. Our intention to ensure against the risk of pandemic is a good example here.

Rolf Dörig: As private insurers, sustainability is in our DNA. We are ready to play an active role in meeting the key ecological, economic and social challenges. To provide some insight into where we are currently, we published our first sustainability report this year. It shows, among other things, that ESG criteria are already being applied to 86 per cent of investments made by the reporting companies in our industry. And some of us have even introduced criteria designed to exclude notable climate offenders. But we must not go too far here and end up with over-regulation that makes more work for us but has no impact on our goal. Ultimately, that would only harm our industry and Switz‹erland as a business location.

Insurers also see pensions as an issue of sustainability.

Rolf Dörig: I hope we are not alone in that! We cannot have a meaningful discussion of climate issues while we’re holding on to a pension system that is a burden on the younger generation. We have always indicated that a reform of the second pillar is urgently needed. The corona crisis has done us a favour here by showing all of us what will happen if we don’t finally take action.

What do you think of the Federal Council’s proposal for OPA reform?

Thomas Helbling: We see positive aspects and areas where amendments are needed. We welcome the core of the reform – the one-step reduction of the OPA minimum conversion rate to 6.0 per cent. On the other hand, we reject the proposed pension supplement for the transitional generation and its financing through an alien pay-as-yougo element. A different solution is needed here. We expect the Federal Council to present a dra¡ bill to parliament very soon.

We need good competitive Conditions.

The partial revision of the Insurance Contract Act also took years. Are you happy with the end result?

Thomas Helbling: It’s a balanced piece of legislation and it takes on board the needs of our society. It also provides up-to-date protection for policyholders and gives insurers a be†er basis for customer advice. It creates mutual trust in amicable contractual relationships in everyday insurance life.

In parliament, the bill passed back and forth between the Councils several times to hammer out the amendments.

Rolf Dörig: That’s part of the parliamentary process. A lot of it was uncontested from the start. But there was long and intensive wrangling over individual points. As is so o¡en the case, the Councils eventually came to an agreement.

Parts of the media were very critical of the insurers, particularly the role of the SIA.

Thomas Helbling: I’m glad that the bill received so much media coverage. It shows how important the subject is to all of us. The fact that it was so hotly debated is part and parcel of politics. As an insurance association, we can handle criticism. However, in the debate around the Insurance Contract Act there was a particular broadcast by Kassensturz that we felt misled the viewers. We submitted a complaint, which was upheld. The complaints authority (UBI) shared our view and criticised the programme and the work of the Kassensturz team.

Before the partial revision of the Insurance Contract Act was passed, the SIA published its new strategy: are you taking the association in a new direction?

Rolf Dörig: The core mission of the SIA remains to make the case for an optimal regulatory framework that serves the interests of our member companies. We need good competitive conditions; i.e. as much regulation as is necessary and as li†le as possible. But, of course, framework conditions change. That’s why we drew up the new strategy.

Thomas Helbling: The ‘SIA 2020–2024’ strategy is designed to define focal areas and provide orientation. A new aspect is that we want to give more weight to our role as an employer. The corona crisis has brought our core principles to the fore. Sustainability and pension reform remain our focus. And as the main pillar of the financial hub, we want to exercise our economic responsibility more specifically.