How Arbitrage is Like Specialty Insurance

This episode (mp3, youtube) is about diving deep into a comparison between stock market arbitrageurs and specialty insurance underwriters. The idea for the show came from the guest, Rich Derr, an actuary at Nationwide Insurance Company’s specialty division and I love nothing more than falling down a well with someone comparing financial and insurance markets.

The original paper that inspired Rich is called The Limits of Arbitrage and doesn’t really contemplate insurance. That’s our job! I learned a lot in this conversation, actually, and some of the insights will stick with me a long time.

The paper has two really important ideas. The first describes what I’ll call ‘ironic opportunities’, which are situations where failure actually emboldens you to further action.

David Wright: It looks riskier and that’s the real core insight, isn’t it? When the position goes farther away from where you think it should be, it looks scarier.

Rich Derr: Yep. And especially if you don’t have that specialty knowledge, you’re looking at that position and as the investor, you’re going, wait a minute, you’re telling me everything’s fine, but you’re, you’re recognizing a loss and now you’re coming to me for more money. And where it gets even more fun is the arbitrageurs are saying not only that, but the opportunity is actually better right now. And so we need more capital to go heavier into that position. Um, and that’s, that’s the difficulty of the arbitrageur.

The second idea is that monitoring a specialist is incredibly hard, so capital providers can understand these that ironic opportunities exist in principle but you need to have limits to your ability to trust an arbitrageur. The solution is almost cruel in its simplicity: just look at their track record.

David Wright: So how do the capital providers decide whether to give you money or not?

Rich Derr: So that’s one of the key assumptions of this paper and it gets into the performance based arbitrage, sorry, performance based allocation. What they do is how they decide who gets the capital as they look at the historic experience of the arbitrageur because the strategies of the arbitrageur is so difficult that they don’t really understand it. So they’ll look at the historic results and say, hey look, historically you’ve done great, you’re going to get capital. Historically you’ve done.. meh.. you don’t get a lot of capital, but that kind of provides a disconnect, right? Because what you should be looking at is the expected results.

It’s fantasy football time. So just using that as an example, like if you just used the last year to judge what the players are going to do next year, you’re gonna you’re going to lose. You need to. You need to look at what’s the expected results are and that’s how they’re making the capital decision.

Both of these ideas map to insurance: you have ironic opportunities all the time in insurance and extremely opaque measures of quality. It’s so hard to know who is good!

Listen to the whole thing for more including on some issues I have with this including the point that long successful track records might not be so great and deeper dives into what this framework can teach us about insurance.

Thanks for listening!

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