Apr 30, 2010

The LORD and Risk Management

The (2010) Louisiana Oil Rig Disaster (LORD) shows that oil industry Risk Management Plans fail.

In general, Risk Management Plans are focusing too much on Risk Control, too little on Risk Prevention and certainly not enough at Damage Control.

The LORD shows us that a sufficient Plan B is missing. The only 'hope'  in the LORD's current Plan B was the Blow-Out Preventer (BOP) at the bottom of the ocean.

Apart from the question whether that BOP has been tested well: what is Plan C if this BOP would fail, as it obvious does?

Plan C ?
Of course not, we don't need a Plan C. All we need is an adequate Plan B. Plan B should simply have included the installing of two other well tested BOPs at an appropriate distance under sea-level.

Supervisors fail as well
It was only after the LORD's appearance, that the House of Representatives began an investigation into "the competency of the companies' risk management and emergency response plans".

This action is a typical case of:

When the steed is stolen, the stable-door is locked

From all this (above) it's clear that not only Risk Managements Plans are failing, but also the preventive control of those plans by national supervisors.

Why care?
As an actuary you might think: BOPs and an exhausting Plan B are perhaps fine regarding the oil industry, but who needs those instruments in the financial industry?

Unfortunately, the financial industry makes the same mistakes as the oil industry. From a long list, in short, two financial examples:
  • Only after the dramatic fall of coverage ratios in 2009, Pension Funds started to make recovery plans (Plan Bs)
  • Only after Greece's financial crisis and the corresponding decline of the Euro, Europe started thinking whether or not they should help Greece out and developed a Plan B.

Rethinking Risk Management
It's undeniable, we fundamentally need to  rethink and restruct our Risk Management Plans.

Risk Control
First of all we'll have to distinguish more between Risk and Damage. Preventing, reducing and controlling Risk (not just damage!) is key. Testing and supervising (certification!) Risk Management Plans is a must and needs more attention.

Damage Control
Apart from  the probability of a Risk event, Damage Control needs more attention. Here 'Controlling' includes Reducing and definitively Stopping Damage. Both are essential. This implies that a serious Plan B is in place and regularly tested and approved by supervisors. This Plan B should include automatic shut off valves in every line of business and 'triple actions plans' in case a first or second case action plan B unexpectedly fails.

How to deal with Unthinkable Risks?
Moreover, to create effective Risk Management Plans, we have to deal with the issue of "Unthinkable Risks".

No matter how creative you and your organization are, one thing is sure: new 'risks you didn't think of' will always show up . Problem is that - just like the LORD showed us -  you'll only become aware of a new risk after its manifestation; when it's clearly too late.

A Risk Sensitive Mindset
This - however - doesn't mean that you can't deal with unthinkable risks. To manage unthinkable risks you'll have to create a 'Risk Sensitive Mindset' in your organization. It takes employees who are vigilant and empowered to take direct action. Creating such an organization pays off in more than one way, as vigilant employees will also have a nose for new business and sales opportunities.
This way, Risk Management costs are not just unavoidable costs but profitable investments.

The LORD and your own responsibility 
As we seem perfectly capable of managing our own personal life without a fifty-page Risk Management Plan, most likely this type of Employee Risk Attitude Development (ERAD) is the most important (but also most disregarded) part of Effective Risk Management. In this case the LORD can't help us, it'll have to be our own insight and decision to take action to develop risk sensitive and responding employees.

Still not convinced that ERAD is the right way ahead? Imagine what difference we actuaries could have made to the (financial) world if we would have been able to spot and address sub-prime mortgages or the weakness of our ALM models in an early stage.....

Many LORD's blesses and Good Luck with this new view on Risk Management!

Related Links / Resources:
- Government Branches Investigate Louisiana Oil Rig Disaster
- UBC: Case Studies of Engineering Failures
- SKY: Emergency Declared As Oil Approaches US Coast
- Strategic, organisational and risk management context

Apr 24, 2010

New Actuarial Ethics

As actuaries we have to act in a complex world. This is no easy task. If we're honest, we have to admit that in this last decade we got ourselves dragged along the road of unrealistic and too optimistic ROI outlooks.

'Good' and mathematically sound advices turned out 'Bad'. Pension Plans are in trouble. New ROI-hope seems to be on our doorstep. With a look of weariness and despair, board members and clients seek our advice.

It's our duty to advice them in this financial jungle. Unfortunately we can not look into our Cristal Ball and predict the future. Moreover, topics like the ROI and longevity outlook become more and more an ethical issue instead of a mathematical exercise in uncertainty.

Yes, it's our responsibility to guide insurance companies, pension funds and other financial institutions through an unsure future. As new age risk managers, we have an enormous responsibility on our shoulders to winnow the Bad from the Good advices. One thing is sure, we have to do better than we did in the past, but how?

E=A-L ?
It's not enough to judge whether a 'one point Equity estimate' keeps the Assets and Liabilities in balance. What's even more clear, there is no one point E, A or L. There are only probabilities and to judge those, our personal ethical principles become even more important than our essential technical skills and experiences.

Our main puzzle is that this decade has shown that observations of the past are no convincing guarantee anymore for predictions of the future. This implies that we have to fall back on other, more ethical, principles in our advice. The good old ethical principles and methods to deal with actuarial dilemmas, need a fresh up.

Genuine Moral Intelligence (GMI)
Main issue is, that the more 'objective' and significant our data get and the more sophisticated our models may become, the more our advice becomes susceptible to unpredictable developments.

On top of all this, more control, increasing data or more advanced models, will only create a false sense of certainty. These old instruments won't  help us anymore en will only reduce the long term returns and aggravate the ultimate volatility. The only way out is to throttle back on our 'risk attitude' on basis of some new ethical principles.

These new ethical principles are not just about 'minimal legal compliance'. Modern actuary ethics goes further than that. In fact ethics is reincarnated as 'Genuine Moral Intelligence' (GMI).

GMI, as defined by Richard E. Thompson, is: Aristotelean decency, vision, purpose, and uncommon sense.

The applicable GMI equation is given by:  


ER = Ethical Reasoning
Rather than "pick an ethical theory and stay the course," one may ask and answer a series of questions.
Some examples: Who are the stakeholders? What ethical principles apply? How do they apply?

UPVs = Underlying Personal Values.
UPVs are used to answer the above questions.
Some examples:
  • As a board member, do you vote for continuing a needed community medical service that is losing money, or for cutting the service to avoid financial problems?
  • As a pension board member, to what kind of probability are you willing to increase the pension of the pensioners at the risk of having to raise the contribution of future pension fund members?

Underlying personal values also determine whether we act according to our morally intelligent conclusion, or choose to ignore it.

RSI = Reasonable Self Interest
Ethics only makes sense if we can come up with a sound answer to the question "Why act ethically?"

Here, Aristotle comes in with a helping answer: "To serve one's own self-interest".
Keep in mind there's a difference between self-interest and greed. The wise Aristotle explains: "Love of self is a feeling implanted by nature, but selfishness is rightly censured, because selfishness is not mere love of self but the love of self in excess, like the miser's need for money."

So self-interest is nothing unethical in itself. An example from the famous Adam Smith stresses this:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." (reasonable self-interest)

From now on actuarial advice is different!
GMI could be the new key to economic recovery. We have to get back into realistic pension plans. We need to establish the necessary changes (due to aging) in our social security systems. It's our task as actuaries to share and discuss the above principles with our clients and the boards we advice, in order to force the crucial (economic) change that's needed. This is no easy task, as board members are often not used to such transparent en open discussions involving their own underlying personal values, preferences and (reasonable) self-interest.

So from now on, when you discuss an actuarial report or advice on board level, it's different! From now on, we've got New Actuarial Ethics, where GMI is inclusive. 

This new ethical theme, including the communication and discussing techniques, should be incorporated in our actuarial education program....

Used Sources/ Related Links:
- Thompson: Ethics is dead, what do we do next?
- The crystal ball 
- When Bad Things Happen to Good Plans
- Actuarial Ethical Dilemmas(2010,ppt)
- Actuary Duty (Vrystaat)
- Clay Bennett Cartoons

Apr 13, 2010

Pension Fund Gambling

The essence of a DB pension fund's risk strategy can be captured in a single graph:

Key issue is that the portfolio duration of a DB-plan's Liabilities varies between 12 and 14 years, whereas the duration of the DB plan’s Assets is generally much shorter, 4.5 to 5 years (Moore 2007).

Secondly, 2008, 2009 and 2010 have proven that investment statistics and models have failed. Sustainable models are nearby dead.

All this implies that, despite all (developed) models, risk strategies, derivatives and experts, ultimately, a Pension Board has to take a decision without a reasonable amount of certainty. In other words they have to gamble.... And to brighten up your day, it's your responsibility as an actuary to advice this pension board!

Read more about this fundamental pension challenge in:

Legal and Investing Implications of LDI Safeguards for Pension Risk

-Public Pension Funds Gamble With Risky Investments
-The Prudent Man Standard

Apr 5, 2010

Actuarial Risk Management Humor

During the pause of a Risk Management conference, a professional risk manager, an accountant and an actuary were in the gents room standing at the urinals. The risk manager, who finished first, walked over to the sink to wash his hands. He then proceeded to dry his hands very carefully. He used paper towel after paper towel to ensure that every single spot of water on his hands was dried. Turning to the accountant and actuary, he said, "We risk managers are trained to be extremely thorough to prevent any risk at all."

Then the accountant finished his task at the urinal and proceeded to wash his hands. He used a 'single paper towel' and made sure that he dried his hands using every available portion of the paper towel. He turned and said, "We accountants are not only trained to be extremely thorough in preventing risk, but we are also trained to be extremely efficient in managing and controlling risk as well."

Finally the actuary finished and walked straight for the door, shouting over his shoulder, "We actuaries, we never get our hands dirty"

- If people think other people are watching them, then they are more likely to wash hands