Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Blame the actuaries

Yet another story about the travails of the monolines - this time on guaranteed investment contracts - made me think about who is really to blame for the mess these companies are in. It's the people who made their underwriting decisions: their actuaries. They decided that there was little risk in guaranteeing investment returns for extended periods. They decided writing hundreds of billions of dollars of financial guarantees on ABS was a good risk return tradeoff. For that matter their colleagues in the life companies decided that variable annuity life policies were a good idea. (These policies, like a GIC, guarantee a return on a risky investments so they act a lot like long dated written puts: needless to say, the actuaries did not price them that way. Now that the equity markets are tumbling you can expect to see some life companies getting into distress...)

So perhaps one lesson that shines out of this mess is do not let an actuary price or risk manage a financial contract without help from a professional. They are not certain to screw it up. But the evidence of the last few years suggests that there is a real risk that they might get it very wrong indeed.

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