May 30, 2009

Paradox of Cautiousness

Actuary, Accountant, Supervisor or Consultant, life is full of paradoxes....

Let's examine a very interesting statement made by the respected President of the Dutch Supervisor DNB, Dr. A.H.E.M. Wellink, in a recent interview on Dutch television (2009;Pauw & Witteman, in Dutch):

"If the (economic) growth fall is between minus 1 and minus 2, and I think it is minus 2, I would express myself in a very subtle and nuanced way, by saying:
"I think it's closer to minus 2 than minus 1". And then, if you listen well, you would know it's actually minus 2.
To be sure, we - me and my (supervisory) colleagues - say it in a more
cautious way ..."

What can we conclude from this short prodigious statement?

Communication fuzz
What first becomes clear in this statement is that responsible board members of (local) supervisors, due to media attention and unrealistic expectations, are forced to communicate in euphemisms or coded idiom.

As a consequence, professionals as well as the public, can only have a best guess at what the real message could be, with communication fuzz as a result.

President Wellink should be allowed to simply state that what he actually means, in this case:
"I think the economic growth will be around minus 2 percent"

Diferent meaning
Second problem with trying to communicate in a 'cautious' way, is that the word 'cautious' has a different meaning for different stakeholders.

For example: an investment will have a different risk profile for the investor, the asset management company, the company's shareholder or the supervisor. Each of these stakeholders will therefore have their own definition of the word 'cautious'.

As a consequence, last but not least, it is the question whether it's 'cautious' if you state the negative growth higher (less negative) than what you really think it is. Most people in the public domain will probably qualify this statement as incautious.

Life of supervisory board members is not easy. They are confronted with a persistent paradox, the Paradox of Cautiousness.

If board members report 'early warnings' they are treated as 'messengers of bad news', accused of market interference or irresponsible actions and launching self fulfilling prophecies. On top of this they may get fired or even be held responsible for the negative financial impact of their statements.

On the other hand, if they don't report their findings public and try to solve the problems in a diplomatic way behind close doors, they may get accused afterwards for not having warned in an earlier phase.

Life is full of risks, not only financial risks, but also the risk of the consequences of (non) communication.

As actuaries, we're often in the same difficult situation as President Wellink. We also have to act cautious, realize our 'cautious' advise regarding the Pension Fund, could implicate an 'incautious' advice for the sponsor or the participants of the pension fund.

Not only actuaries, but also accountants, investors or - in short - everyone who has an advisory or controlling function, have to deal with this 'Paradox of Cautiousness'.

Risk Escalation Management & POP
In most cases the Paradox of Cautiousness can be avoided by proactive Risk management.

If (recalculation of) your Risk Management Models or Scenario's indicate a significant change of risk in the (near) future, immediately take action, propose measures and demand adequate decisions. Don't postpone your actions in order to be sure of the observed changes nor on the advice of friendly 'experienced' stakeholders that tell you with a smile there'll be no problem at all and you're overreacting.

Once you're in the phase where incidentally ad-hoc repair management by the board has failed and serious structural repair management scenario's have to be put on the table, you're too late!

You'll have past the so called point of no return - in this case - the Point of Paradox (POP), you're caught in

The Paradox of Cautiousness

If you put your warnings and proposals in this phase on the table, stakeholders will tell you they felt caught by your actions. Soon board members and other stakeholders will blame you for not having warned them earlier and will question your accountability. Before you realize what's going on, you're in phase three: Crisis management, your head is on the block.

Rules of Thumb
From Wellink's simple example, we may conclude several rules of thumb about being cautious:
  • Dimension cautioness
    Never state that you are cautious in general, always dimension cautiousness with regard to the different stakeholders and the type and size of risks.

  • Early stage warning
    In line with "good governance" always try to warn in an early stage, before the Point of Paradox (POP) when things are (about) to move in the wrong direction, but are still manageable. Warn in a transparent way, open and visible to all stakeholders. Arrange a board level discussion and make sure you've got a completely free hand in what and how you put your findings and vision on the table.

  • External Advice
    Make sure that you're allowed (and have budget) to hire external consult whenever you think this is necessary. In case of discussions or decisions that may have substantial financial impact, don't doubt, but hire external legal or financial consult to assist you and to validate your findings.

  • Contract & Access
    Make sure your contract includes conditions that prevent your employer from firing you during your report findings period and make sure you have (formal) access to any (supervisory) board member when you think this is opportune.

After this heavy stuff, let's conclude with a nice parable...

Parable of the Cautious Actuary
There was a very cautious actuary,
who never laughed or cried.
He never risked, he never lost,
he never won nor tried.
And when he one day passed away,
his insurance was denied,
For since he never really lived,
they claimed he never died.
- Unknown -

May 22, 2009

WolframAlpha Actuary Wages

The new search engine WolframAlpha, is really a big hit for actuaries and mathematicians. Just fill in a formula like x^2 sin(x) and enjoy what WolframAlpha makes of it....

Some typical handy features for actuaries and other finance whizkids are available.
Just click on the next links to see what WolframAlpha makes of the word:

Click this video to learn more about the use of WolframAlpha.

Let's conclude with an interesting example. Here's what WolframAlpha makes of the word "actuary":

May 16, 2009

Actuary Thyl Ulenspiegel?

Anyone with a little mother wit knows one plus one equals exactly two, not more, not less.

Smart people, like the historic Thyl Ulenspiegel, made a profession out of counting. Every time bystanders gave Thyl the choice between a rix-dollar (a 'two and a half dollar' coin) or 2 dollars coins, he opted for the 2 dollars.

"Two is more than one", Thyl - clearly not an actuary - used to say. People felt pity for 'poor Thyl Ulenspiegel'. That someone like him could be that stupid!

Modern Counting
Today (2009) little has changed. Modern gurus made us believe that, through M&A's, synergy, cooperation, in or outsourcing, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. One plus one could easily equal three or even more.

However, research has shown that the majority of mergers and acquisitions fail. Hindsight shows that one plus one doesn't add up to three, but only to one point five, or in some cases even to zero. Cause? Synergy benefits and future market are extremely overestimated and cultural differences, despite continued 'slippery warnings', remain underestimated.

Shareholders and management of an acquired company cash their future notional profit surplus, that -at first - appears in the balance sheet as 'goodwill' and than subsequently, over the years, becomes visible as a loss in the P&L.

However there are other modern counters - not actuaries - that can even do better, as will be illustrated next.

Some youth memories never fade..
As a young boy I discovered an unstamped stamp in the attic of our house.

The stamp was worth 50 billion Deutsche Mark, dated 1923.

Completely overwhelmed I tumbled down the stairs to report my parents we'd become billionaires.

A few minutes later, completely disillusioned, I'd learned a new word: Hyperinflation.

The hyperinflation back in the twenties of the the last century is only a trifle of the current (hyper) credit inflation:

U.S. $

A trillion dollars, the Fed 'invests' in buying up debt. By coincidence this equals the amount of money that Europe, the G20, will be pumping in the economy.

For all of 2009, the U.S. administration probably needs to borrow about $2 trillion. That money doesn't really exist, but that's no point of concern! The debt crisis is simply solved with more debt. What was not legitimate for the banks, is now legitimate for the 'bankruptcy proof government'. Frankly, my intuition really starts to falter now ...

Russian Credit Roulette
Modern Ulenspiegels, playing a variant of 'Russian Credit Roulette', have now left the roulette tables. With borrowed money, doubling their bet for five consecutive times in a row, they bet and lost on 'credit red'.

Instead of taking their loss, the government has taken their place at the table and decided to double the bet on red for the sixth time in a row, now playing for a trillion dollars.

All of this under enhanced risk management, governance and supervision of course.

To get a really confident feeling: the probability of consecutive six times black seems both rational and intuitive almost impossible, but is in any case less than the "safe" smaller 2.5% ruin probability (2.5% probability of insolvency) of a pension fund. Some people state there's light at the end of the 'financial crisis' tunnel.

Now let's hope this light is no oncoming train and roulette tables turn out to have a memory after all.

Maybe it's time actuaries get involved in government finance....

May 8, 2009

Live Piracy Map

According to IMB Piracy attacks almost doubled in 2009 first quarter.

Pirating in the Gulf of Aden, transit way for a third of the world's commerce, set a record of 120 attacks in 2008. Estimates of ransom payments vary and are estimated at around $40 million last year.

Attacks, and ransoms, in 2009 are on a pace to top those records. In his column "Insurance companies' piracy policies can be a double-edged sword", David Greising -business columnist for the Chicago Tribune - states:

  • In the business world, risks create opportunities, so you shouldn't be surprised to know that the scourge of piracy on the high seas has led to a nifty innovation: pirate insurance.
  • Chicago-based Aon Corp. and other companies have begun offering policies to guard against the loss of ships, cargo or crews to pirates.
  • If shippers become more willing to make ransom payments because they'll have insurance to cover losses, it may only add to the economic booty that tempts Somalis into piracy in the first place.
  • One of the lasting lessons of the piracy epidemic is how some of the world's most powerful naval forces have been almost powerless against speedboat-driving outlaws from one of the world's broken-down states. It will be tough to solve the piracy problem so long as anarchy and economic deprivation persist in Somalia.

Nevertheless piracy insurance business is high profitable for companies like AON. So profitable that according to Workers World there are some pirates who don’t use firearms to seize vessels on the high seas.

Some even go further than that

The ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is a specialised division of the International Chamber Of Commerce (ICC). The IMB is a non-profit making organisation to act as a focal point in the fight against all types of maritime crime and malpractice. IMB’s main task is to protect the integrity of international trade by seeking out fraud and malpractice.

IMB Live Piracy Map 2009
This map shows all the piracy and armed robbery incidents reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre during 2009.
red-dot = Actual Attack yellow-dot = Attempted Attack purple-dot = Suspicious vessel

Sources: International Maritime Bureau,
Live Piracy Report, Piracy Map 2008, Piracy Map 2007

Any comment on where to find more information about the actuarial modeling of pirate risks (Kidnap and ransom insurance) and/or insurance quoting would be welcome.

May 6, 2009

Chinese Actuary - Computer - Crisis

One of the interesting aspects of the Chinese language is that words are like little pictures, pictograms or logographs, the so called 'characters'. Moreover, some words are a combination, or (better) a superposition, of several of those characters.

So the meaning of a Chinese word can be deducted by interpretation of the pictograms and relating them. And, as the saying is "A picture is worth a thousand words", you don't need to be an actuary to calculate the enormous expression-power of the Chinese language. Every word is like a book of words and expresses not only the rational meaning but also the embodied feeling (mood) that goes along with the the formal meaning.

The power of the Chinese language can be illustrated by three simple examples, the Chinese words for Actuary, Computer and Crisis:

1. Actuary
The Chinese word for Actuary is :精算师

Pronunciation: jing suan shyr

The Chinese word Actuary consists of three characters:
  1. Jing, 精, means Skilled or Elite
  2. Suàn, 算, means 'to calculate' or 'to count'
  3. Shyr, 师, a suffix meaning 'a profession of' or a skilled or 'qualified practitioner of certain professions'

So, as a consequence, a stripped and therefore 'shortcoming' translation of the Chinese word for actuary would be: 'a skilled and qualified calculator'

Sources: Masteringmandarin, Translation, Wei Liu Dictionary,
Actuary Translated: A statistician who computes insurance risks and premiums.

2. Computer
The pictogram on the right means "computer" in Chinese. Actually, it consists of two characters that literally mean "Electric Brain", which the Chinese read as "computer".

However, as you may notice, the two main characters each exist of several sub-characters that also contribute and add meaning to the word 'Computer'.

Source, and more info at: Ebrain

3. Crisis
With the current credit crisis ( 信贷危机 xìndài wēijī) in mind, let's look at the Chinese word for 'crisis'. It consists of two characters

So in Chinese crisis means something like

Crisis = Danger + Opportunity

Let's apply this to daily business life.

No matter how great the danger in a crisis is, it also means a change of circumstances that creates space for new opportunities. It's an art to spot those opportunities when you're in the middle of a crisis.

But what if you're caught in a storm crisis:

Golden Rules Crisis Risk Management
In terms of risk management: If you're caught in the storm (trouble) and can't get out, don't try to. Try to get to the eye of the storm, where it's calm.

So when you're in the middle of a (credit) crisis :
  • Don't run
  • Set time still (Let time do the work)
  • Keep your head together
  • Wait for the opportunity, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes

Some more tips on how to behave in crisis situations you'll find on


May 4, 2009

Credit Default Swaps explained

Credit default swaps are actually an insurance against 'damage' on your asset portfolio.
Just watch Senior Editor Paddy Hirsch explane it.

Untangling credit default swaps from Marketplace on Vimeo.