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Well-intentioned but light on substance: The ESMA review of AIFMD

In August 2020, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) published a letter to the European Commission (EC) outlining its recommendations on future potential amendments to the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive (AIFMD). The letter’s contents have yielded a mixed response from the asset management industry. The NCI takes a look at some of ESMA’s proposals.

Greater harmonisation

The lack of harmonisation between UCITS and AIFMD has been a source of frustration at asset managers for a long time. Accordingly, ESMA has asked the EC to align AIFMD and UCITS where possible. ESMA also said there needed to be greater consistency between AIFMD/UCITS and MiFID (Markets in Financial Instruments Directive) to ensure that entities providing similar services are subject to comparable regulatory standards. Again, this is a welcome development for the funds’ industry. Having made improvements to AIFMD’s Annex IV reporting, ESMA also said it was vital that UCITS reporting should now become more harmonised and less duplicative. The lack of reporting standardisation in member states has been a significant barrier for asset managers undertaking cross-border distribution. The implementation of a more homogenised regulatory and reporting regime for UCITS would help provide a much-needed boost to cross-border distribution and sales.

ESMA added there needs to be greater EU-wide consistency on liquidity risk management, an issue which has become more crucial following the Covid-19 crisis. “In ESMA’s view, the EC should take the opportunity to  review the availability of all liquidity management tools outlined in the European Systemic Risk Board’s (ESRB) recommendation A. In addition, the availability of tools should also be included in the UCITS directive.” Among the ESRB’s suggestions were that additional provisions be inserted into AIFMD and UCITS clarifying the roles of regulators when using their powers to suspend redemptions in situations where there are cross-border financial stability implications. For instance, there is still uncertainty as to which regulator is responsible for supervising redemptions and subscriptions– when the fund and its management company are located in different member states.

Delegation in the spotlight

Delegation arrangements at asset managers have been subject to intense scrutiny ever since Brexit. While ESMA accepts delegation promotes efficiency, it warns the practice can increase operational and supervisory risk, especially if more strategic activities take place outside of the EU. In response, ESMA said “further legal clarifications on the maximum extent of delegation would be helpful to ensure supervisory convergence and ensure authorised AIFMs and UCITS management companies maintain sufficient substance in the EU.” Although previous attempts by some member states to limit delegation were rebuffed, it continues to be an ongoing risk for non-EU investment managers.

A damp squib

While advocating for further harmonisation of UCITS and AIFMD is not a bad thing, the ESMA letter is deliberately vague. The section on reverse solicitation simply calls for greater clarity owing to the fact different member states are adopting their own interpretations. This is a sensible recommendation but ESMA provides little detail on how this should be achieved. Similarly, ESMA takes a fairly ambiguous position on the establishment of a pan-EU depositary passport – a topic which has been under discussion since the early 1990s – by  kicking the issue into the long grass. Even though ESMA’s message is generally positive, the letter is extraordinarily light on substance.