Showing posts with label financial crisis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label financial crisis. Show all posts

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....

Mar 4, 2009

Two reasons motivate less

In an earlier TED Show psychologist Barry Schwartz illustrated in a humorous and catching way the effects od "Too much choice".

Now, in another TED Show video called, "The real crisis? We stopped being wise", he shows us that the current financial crisis can't be solved by more rules or incentive policy.

Schwartz pleads for a new approach based on a Obama's approach to solve the current financial crisis. Already before his inauguration Obama said:

We must ask, not just is it profitable, but is it right

Schwartz: "In his inaugrual address, Barack Obama appealed to each of us to give our best, as we try to extragate ourselves form the current financial crisis. But what did he appeal to? He did not, happily, follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and tell us to just go shopping. Nor did he tell us , 'Trust us, trust your country. Invest. Invest. Invest.' Instead, what he told us, was, to put aside the childish things. And he appealed to virtue.

Two reasons motivate less?
Schwartz brilliantly illustrates the common wrong notion that if you have one reason for doing something and you are given a second reason for doing the same thing, it seems only logical that two reasons are better than one, and you are more likely to do it.

This is not always true. sometimes two reasons to do the same thing seem to compete with one another instead of complementing, and they make people less likely to do it.

Schwartz illustrates this in the next example:

In Switzerland, back about 15 years ago, they were trying to decide where to site nuclear waste dumps. There was a national referendum and some psychologists went around and polled citizens who were very well informed. And they said, “Would you be willing to have a nuclear waste dump in your community?” Astonishingly, 50% of the citizens said “Yes.” They knew, or thought, it was dangerous, they thought it would reduce their property values, but, it had to go somewhere, and they had responsibilities as citizens.

The psychologists asked other people a slightly different question. They said, “If we paid you six weeks salary, every year, would you have a nuclear waste dump in your community?” Two reasons: it is my responsibility and I am getting paid. Instead of 50% saying yes, 25% said yes.

What happens is that the introduction of the incentive gets us to a point that, instead of asking, “What is my responsibility?”, all we ask is “What serves my interest?”

When incentives don’t work, when CEOs ignore the long term health of their companies in pursuit of short term gains that will lead to massive bonuses, the (wrong) response is always the same: get smarter incentives.

So, in general, adding more or better incentives will not motivate us more or increase our responsibility!

Actuarial lesson
As actuaries we often try to find as many reasons as possible to convince a board of taking the right decision. Perhaps we should emphasize more on finding and communicating that one and only reason to take the right decision: a prudent, healthy and solid decision (investment) that benefits all stakeholders on the long and short term, in a balanced way.

text version of video