Back in 2012, the world’s best-managed pension market was thrown a lifeline by the Danish government to help contain liabilities. That was when interest rates were still positive.

Seven years later, with rates now well below zero, even Denmark’s $440 billion pension system says the environment has become so punishing that it may be time for a change in European rules.

Henrik Munck, a senior consultant at Insurance & Pension Denmark, an umbrella organization, says the way liabilities are currently calculated “could cause a negative spiral” that forces funds to keep buying low-risk assets, drive yields lower and the value of liabilities even higher.

The warning comes as pension firms across Europe struggle to generate the returns they need to cover their growing obligations. Profitability remains under pressure despite steps to switch customers to products with lower or no guarantees, according to supervisors. In Denmark, some funds saddled with legacy policies guaranteeing returns as high as 4.5% have had to use equity to meet their obligations.

To calculate liabilities, pension firms use a complex mathematical formula constructed by the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA). The formula is intended to shield funds from erratic market swings that artificially inflate or hollow out balance sheets. But with negative rates more entrenched, there are signs the EIOPA curve, as it’s called, may not be working as intended.

“When pension funds across Europe de-risk simultaneously, it may actually become pro-cyclical: it increases the price movements, and it could result in yet more downward pressure on the EIOPA yield curve, exacerbating the problem,” Munck said.

The curve is comprised of several elements. Its backbone — the euro interest-rate swap curve — has sunk since its implementation about four years ago, driving up the value of liabilities.

Sinking Swap Rates

The European Commission has started reviewing the regulatory framework around insurers — Solvency II — with a view to proposing improvements by the end of next year. Insurance Europe, an industry group, is urging the commission to address the curve in its evaluations.

In the meantime, pension funds have been coping by buying up riskier assets. The Dutch, ranked with Denmark as the world’s best performing pension providers by Mercer, have complained to the European Central Bank about the fallout on the industry.

And Then…

And then there’s the headache of what’s called the volatility adjustment (VA), which is set on a country-by-country basis and is designed to cushion the impact of erratic markets. According to Bloomberg Intelligence senior analyst Charles Graham, there’s “widespread” agreement that VA is “flawed.”

“It is something that EIOPA is considering recommending changing, but the challenge is still what to replace it with, or how to fine tune it,” Graham said.

Earlier this year, EIOPA unexpectedly slashed Denmark’s VA to roughly a third its previous level, causing considerable alarm in the industry.

According to Anders Damgaard, the chief financial officer of Denmark’s biggest commercial pension fund, PFA, which has about $100 billion in assets, EIPOA’s reason for the adjustment made sense: The new VA incorporates call options that let Danish borrowers buy back the bonds that fund their mortgages. The long-term covered bonds to which those call options are attached are a cornerstone of Danish pension funds’ investment portfolios.

With interest rates at unprecedented lows, a record number of borrowers are now taking advantage of those call options to refinance their mortgages. Damgaard says the way EIOPA calculates the volatility adjustment means the very device that’s intended to mute market swings has itself become more volatile. Worse, because it’s “an artificial number,” pension funds can’t hedge it, he says.

“That’s really where the main challenge is for us,” Damgaard said. “We have an unhedgeable component of the yield curve — which is actually active on the entire yield curve — and you can’t hedge it, which means that the balance sheet posts are very volatile.”

PFA, like many Danish pension funds, started scaling back guaranteed products for retirees many years ago. That’s given it a buffer to help absorb some of the shock of growing liabilities. But not everyone’s as well prepared. “If the discount curve is more volatile and you can’t hedge it, you can — if you don’t have enough capital — be forced to lower risk on the more hedgeable space, to compensate,” Damgaard said.

Olav Jones, deputy director general of Insurance Europe, says the pension industry “does not see any need to change the way the risk-free curve is generated, but there is a need to improve how the VA is generated.” Right now, it’s “generally too low and generally leads to liabilities that are inflated” and creates artificial volatility in insurers’ balance sheets, he said.

In Denmark, where interest rates have been below zero longer than anywhere else, regulators are increasingly worried that pension funds are shifting more risk over to their customers. In August, the head of the Danish financial regulator said there are signs that retail investors are being forced to accept more risk than they understand.