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Ken Brandt of Trans Re on COVID-19

Ken Brandt (episode page) is the co-President of Underwriting at Trans Re and we recorded this episode on June 3, 2020. COVID-19 remains a pretty big unknown and my own initial feeling was that it wouldn’t be a big deal for insurance. My thinking is changing on this.

Let me pull out some quotes on the best and worst case scenarios for insurance from Ken’s perspective. First the Best Case:

Ken Brandt: I think our best and now I think more realistic market scenario is we actually get paid appropriately for the exposures we’re taking on… and they’ll be reinsurance pricing momentum and the opportunity to provide our customers with, you know, quality return solutions at a fair price is probably better, better now than it has been in the last decade.

DavidWright: Why?

Ken Brandt: Well, that’s a good question. Why we you know, it’s not like someone woke up and announced, let’s alter in the market together. You know, it’s coming from pain and anticipated pain. So if you look at what was happening, pre pandemic, the market was already moving in several large areas, particularly in the US, particularly in casualty lines…

Here’s Ken on the Worst Case:

I mean, let me without a doubt the worst worst worst case scenario, not just for trans re, the industry, is what we’re kind of hinting at here and that government or legislature’s retro actively push in business interruption coverage where none was intended. To me, that’s what do they call it when the meteors supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs.. extinction level event? Yes, that’s an ELE, you know, the industry is not capitalized for that, or will ever be capitalized to take on a large portion of the damage done to GDP by a global pandemic. So, now, I don’t think retroactive coverage is going to happen. But that’s still not resolved. But that would be a very, very bad outcome for translating for everyone else in the industry. Outside of that, you know, I think a worst case for for us and many, many others, obviously, is that COVID losses kind of hit the higher end of some of these estimate ranges. And maybe the market has additional cats along the way….

David Wright: and it’s fascinating to me about about the answers. If I think your best case and worst case scenario is, is there actually a difference of kind not really a difference of type, right, and so it’s like the best case scenario like we know we’re going to get losses. The best case scenario is the losses are bad enough that it wakes us up. But not so bad that it takes us out. And the worst case scenario is it takes us out.

Ken Brandt: Right? It’s a simple business, David

In the insurance industry some surprises are good for business because they remind the rest of us that not everything is predictable. But handle that dynamite with care! Maybe the surprise is even scarier than insurance geeks imagined. When society is rocked to its core, assumptions for how the world works must change. There’s a doctrine called legal realism that basically says the law is what people want it to be. If there is a dire social need to extract money from the insurance industry, out it comes. They’ve got the guns after all. 

I don’t think insurance will be nationalized but that thought is rooted in my belief that we will come through ok in COVID-19. If things get worse, the social contract of “we as a society will let you keep your money”, among many others, will get rewritten. 

How COVID Hits the Poor with Jennifer Brady

Jennifer Brady (episode page) is the Executive Director of Oasis, a non-profit helping women, teens and children rise out of poverty in the greater Paterson, NJ area. Among the many, many things that are concerning about COVID-19, I think the most underrated is how this pandemic will afflict the poor. Jen and I cover a lot of ground in 30 mins, including:

  • How has the ‘COVID lockdown’ affected the working (now not working!) poor?
  • How able is this population to comply with CDC-recommended social distancing and other prevention practices?
  • What might be the social and political ramifications of substantial infections among the poor?

Think about huge groups of people that are predominantly first generation immigrants with poor English skills, highly concentrated in multi-generational homes (including the elderly and little children) and with high incidence of pre-existing health conditions. I can’t imagine a higher risk population.

What do politics look like when huge swathes of already marginalized people come down with a highly communicable disease that the richer parts of society overcome? And by politics I mean the potentially very ugly post-COVID politics where progressivism is dead?

Dark stuff, of course. The response Jen and the staff at Oasis are seeing so far is encouraging but there is a version of the future where when it turns worse when nobody is looking.

COVID Conversation With Michael Tanzer

Michael Tanzer is a portfolio manager at a hedge fund called Callaway Capital and author of a newsletter I read each week call Stuff to Read Over The Weekend (STROTW). Michael asked me if we could hop on a call and talk about COVID and I thought I might try just putting this out as a podcast as an experiment. I might do more of these with various people as I struggle to make sense of this crisis, partly to get my own mind off the concerns I have for myself and my family. Let me know what you think!

We cover a lot of my own current thinking about how insurance responds to this crisis and also models for economic and market disruption and how COVID-19 fits into all this. Is it an insurance-style crisis hitting the border economy?

In the conversation we talk briefly about a book that sounds pretty interesting called Diary of a Very Bad Year. It’s a book of the real time experience of the economic crisis by a crisis feels. I shall check it out!

Christy Ford Chapin on The History of Health Insurance

My guest for the latest episode (episode page) is Christy Ford Chapin (@christyfchapin), who wrote *Ensuring America’s Health: The Public Creation of the Corporate Health Care System*, which covers in enormous detail the historical origins of the US Health Insurance system. Here is my opening question:

David Wright: You wrote a paper with a great name: “Going Behind with the 15 Cent Policy: Black Owned Insurance Companies and the State“. So please tell us about the name, but also about the central idea. That is why black owned insurance companies were, at the dawn of the 20th century, at a disadvantage. And I mean in addition to fighting explicit racial segregation and usual things we associate with this line of thinking. Black owned insurers had an even harder battle to fight, right?

Christy’s central narrative is that the American Medical Association was the linchpin player in warding off the alternatives to the insurance-centric model. Today this would be a right wing effort but their position doesn’t conform to our familiar political battle lines. As they say, The Past is a Foreign Country, they do things different there. Try this:

Christy Chapin: …and it’s funny because a lot of people have thought have assumed that the AMA… I’ve seen other scholars err in thinking they assume that they’re pro-market because they are anti-government. Not at all. That’s just not the way ideology worked back then.

There is much more on that and so much more still, including the variety of alternative systems in the early 20th century, how fraternal associations were the original insurers, whether the political diversity of the US was really to blame, whether Medicare would have been passed if JFK hadn’t been assassinated and, of course, what discussion of health care is complete without an exploration of cost:

David Wright: I see lots of references way earlier than you think in your work about people kind of wringing their hands and complaining about the skyrocketing costs of health care.

Christy Chapin: Right

David Wright: When was the first was the first instance of that that you can recall?

Christy Chapin: Oh, it’d be hard to say because and also this book gosh, It came out in 2015 and haven’t worked on it so and now I’m working on finance. It was so long ago, but I am thinking about how I did look at some reports in the 1920s. And it was a problem before that because, you know, the discovery of germ theory end of the 19th century….

I used to think that health insurance was different than other kinds of insurance but I’m not as sure anymore. It’s incredibly important to us and yet it’s also a rare case of insurance that isn’t compulsory. Auto, Home, Workers Compensation, even most forms of commercial insurance are mandated by third parties and each has its own unique reasoning for being compulsory. Health’s unusual mix of voluntary purchase and extreme importance is what attracted me to the business. It’s surprisingly a lot like reinsurance! 

In the coming weeks and months I’ll be exploring all kinds of great topics, including more on the history of insurance, Artificial Intelligence algorithms, theories of the mind, managing AI teams, theories of why consumers choose and occasionally some real hardcore insurance geekery. Thanks for listening folks, you can reply to this email to reach out any time!

Ty Sagalow on Making Lemonade

My guest for this episode is Ty Sagalow (episode page), one of the founding members of the Lemonade Insurance Group. Ty has held various underwriting and product development position at AIG over his 25 year career there and served as Chief Innovation officer at Zurich North America and Tower Group before joining Lemonade as its first Chief Insurance Officer.

Ty wrote a book about his Lemonade experience called the “Making of Lemonade” which is the topic of the interview!

We cover all kinds of ground in the conversation but I didn’t take long to get to the heart of the matter. The thing that distinguishes many tech startups of course is that their technology is so great. What is that like? Here is a relevant bit:

Ty Sagalow: If you want to create a new process, it’s a thousand times fold better, you’ve got to start from very beginning, start completely from scratch and that takes a different type of way of looking at things. Um, and I’ll give you, I’ll give you one of my best examples.

So, um, we were at the tail end of almost getting all licensed from, uh, from New York and they wanted to make a number of changes, a dozen changes. So I call up Moshe and I say Moshe, we need to make a whole bunch of changes. So I start rattling off these changes as fast as I can and I’m hearing clicking noises in the background and at the end of, by dozen changes, and I’m saying as quickly as I can, I say to Moshe, do you got that? And he says, what do you mean Ty? And I said, well, have you taken note of everything that I’ve just told you we have to change? And he said, no. And I said, Moshe, why the hell not? He says, well, I made the changes as you were saying them should, should I have not done that? Should I undo the changes? And I said, [laughs] no, you don’t have to undo the changes. And that’s the last time I ever questioned Moshe Lieberman. If I was dealing with a traditional insurance software provider, I would have to send that in email. It would then prompt a meeting, which would prompt a number of emails, which would prompt then a number of meetings and maybe six months later I would have it.

It’s worth pointing out that this explanation, that building a system from scratch is better because of the flexibility that developers have in using more modern techniques appears to fly in the face of software development orthodoxy. See Joel Spolsky’s famous post Things you Should Never Do: Part 1:

…they did it by making the single worst strategic mistake that any software company can make:

They decided to rewrite the code from scratch.

There’s a subtle reason that programmers always want to throw away the code and start over. The reason is that they think the old code is a mess. And here is the interesting observation: they are probably wrong. The reason that they think the old code is a mess is because of a cardinal, fundamental law of programming:

It’s harder to read code than to write it.

Contrary to popular belief, most software ages more like wine than cheese. Bugs are hard to find and take enormous time and care to replicate, isolate and eliminate. Software needs time in users’ hands to become fully functional and to the extent that it looks like a mess that just means it reflects a messy reality and complexity in the operating environment.

On the other hand! There is real progress in software development tools, especially since modern consumer businesses are vastly greater in scale than before. One very (the most?) interesting innovation actually honors Joel’s quote above: microservices. This is the philosophy that software should be built of detachable component modules that you can replace if you want. A piece of software tends to be an accumulation of a lot of different functions (ingestion, storage, billing, reporting, etc) and these can be made architecturally distinct. If you want to totally change your web app you can just pull that part out and keep the rest together. This lets you keep the wine and throw out the moldy cheese.

That doesn’t mean I disagree with Ty! There’s a difference between licensing systems and building systems and I think an important exception to make for software that supplies the critical business function of a firm. And for an insurance firm that means recording its history.

Every company is different and every policy management system needs to be just as different or the insurer will be hopelessly unable to adapt the system to their needs.

So if you licensed a vendor system and you’d have to rewrite most of the software to suit your needs anyway, you might as well not pay for the legacy code you won’t use. That means that the new code (your code) is written by a few developers who, if they are good, can make changes quickly because they don’t need to read their own code, it is already sitting in their heads.

Yes you need to have a developer good enough to code a system almost single-handedly, and overall smarts and development knowledge is definitely a critical advantage of the valley startups.

The rest is maybe just not being afraid of building your own software!

Tyler Cowen on Big Business

My guest for this episode is Tyler Cowen (episode page), professor of economics at George Mason University, blogger at MarginalRevolution.com host of the Conversations with Tyler podcast and author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Big Business: a love letter to an American Anti-Hero, which we cover in the show. 

In the book, Tyler convincingly makes the case the big businesses are actually quite good for society and us individually. One reading of the book that we dig into is that the virtuous big business is a very American institution. Crony capitalism, state champions, these are not the kinds of engines of innovation and intangible capital that a more true market economy only can produce. Here is the bit from the interview:

David Wright: You’re bringing it up pretty succinctly there, but that was my second reading of the book, which is this very American book. And that’s depressing where it seems to me, if you’re anywhere else in the world, and we can talk about China in a second, you’re thinking to yourself, well, that’s great, that big business is good. But what does that going to be for me? Like what does that mean for me in Switzerland or Poland or Ghana or something. It’s depressing.

Tyler Cowen: It’s a very patriotic book. That’s one of the Straussian readings. Maybe is even thumbing its nose a bit at foreigners, but I think an implied message is be friendlier to your multinational enterprises. They can do a great deal for your nation as they have done in many countries around the world, most obviously Singapore, but much of East Asia, including parts of China and not embrace this. India is the country that probably needs that lesson more than any other. They’re one of the most hostile to outside business, including American big business.

Here is another bit on how the mission-driven culture of startups (the best of whom become the best of the big businesses!) might stem from societal inequality!

David Wright: It feels to me maybe that that is changing a bit. I don’t know why I think that maybe I’m just becoming more aware of it as I get older, but I wonder how much business was mission-driven in the past? Any sense of that?

Tyler Cowen: There was a phenomenally strong sense of ethical mission in American businesses, especially in the Midwest throughout the 20th century. It was very modest. It wasn’t always trumpeted. There, of course, was not any internet, but it was deeply internalized and very strongly felt and they propelled this country to many great achievements. But I think this renewed sense of mission for employees, it stems from income inequality, oddly enough. So, income inequality for labor is a sign that talent is quite scarce for whatever reason. And when talent is scarce, for one thing, talent’s already earning a lot of money, and they want something other than money and it’s hard to attract people. So, you build a mission into the enterprise. I think there’s a lot of cases where businesses may start approaching mission somewhat even cynically like, oh, we just want to make more money. But over time they do it. They start believing it. It becomes sincere. It’s a kind of artificially manufactured true sincerity and the final equilibrium.

We cover so much more ground, including:

  • Where businesses fit into the social intuition of the human mind
  • Similarities between how we treat famous people and big business and what another of Tyler’s books, *What Price Fame* can teach us about big business
  • What is good management and what effects does management have on employees?
  • How the book is an American book and how it is NOT a Chinese book
  • Crony capitalism doesn’t exist here, but where might it exist in the world?
  • Wall Street and Financial Dark Matter
  • How Tyler views the firm differently from most economists

Thanks for listening!

Melissa Perri on Escaping The Software Build Trap

Melissa Perri (youtubeepisode page) lives at the cutting edge of software process design and runs a consultancy devoted to building great product leaders. This of course applies to non-software products but the day is approaching when there is no such thing as a non-software product. Listen to this episode and continue on your journey to being a better producer of software, either as a coder or as an enabler of the programmers that build the products your company sells!

For the insurance people in the crowd this is one of the most important shows I’ve done. Five years ago Marc Andreessen made the point (see here and a discussion here) that software is eating the world and elsewhere he’s made the point that there are three layered observations in this hypothesis. 
  1. First and most weakly: every product that can will become a software product.
  2. Second, therefore any company that makes these products needs to become a software company. 
  3. Third and most strongly, that in any industry, the winning company will be the best software company, not the best at any other function. So in fact, Marc suggests, software will become the most valuable part of every product. In an insurance context that means that software will be more important than underwriting, than customer relationships and expense management, independent of software.

True? We shall see.. but  wrestle with these ideas a bit before dismissing them!            

The bottom line is that software development is the key new skill and it is HARD to do. I like to joke that the customer satisfaction rate for policy management systems is 0 and that is probably the most damning statistic imaginable for the insurance industry. It presumes this delineation between the technology and business side of the company, as Melissa points out in the cold open of my interview with her. That’s not how a software company looks at things. To a software company, the software is the means of delivery and business processes spring up to support the software in places where it can’t (yet!) go. 

Melissa’s book is called Escaping the Build Trap and is a highly refined explanation for how to integrate advanced software development management practices into the organisational culture and decision making framework. 

So this episode is a key part of a long-running theme in this show: why is software hard and how can we get better at it? Listen in and learn with me!

Alex Tabarrok on Innovation and Baumol Effect

My guest for this episode is Alex Tabarrok (youtube, player page), the Bartley J. Madden Chair in Economics at the Mercatus Center and Professor of Economics at George Mason University, blogger at Marginalrevolution.com, co-founder of Marginal Revolution University and co-author with Eric Helland of “Why Are The Prices So Damn High?” which is short, free book and which we discuss on the show.

Alex has written many other books and papers and there is a theme of thinking about innovation throughout his work. Several years ago he wrote a book on the topic called “Launching the Innovation Renaissance” which we also touch on as well as how the era of a country’s birth affects its institutional makeup, how national rivalries can generate positive externalities (pop quiz: what was NASA’s budget as a % of US GDP at its peak?), whether and why there has been a decline in innovation (and what’s the difference between innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth?), where we might look for a model of education reform and how we might get there (what would a Hollywood-style investment in education reform look like?) including Alex’s own observations in launching his own education platform (marginal revolution university!), and much more!

I wanted to highlight one clip from the conversation that really caught my attention. Here is Alex’s favourite policy idea for improving economic growth:

Alex Tabarrok’s favourite policy idea for improving economic growth: reduce crime!

Matt Moore on Highway Technology

My guest for this episode is Matt Moore, SVP of the Highway Loss Data Institute. At HLDI Matt manages the research function for HLDI’s massive insurance and automobile dataset. In this episode we leap to the cutting edge of AI in automobiles and learn about how well some key safety features perform, such as:

  • Front Automatic Emergency Brakes
  • Curve-adaptive headlights (Big surprise!)
  • Lane departure warning systems
  • Blind spot warning systems
  • Parking sensors
  • Rear cameras
  • Rear automatic emergency brake

In addition to rattling through those features and how effective they are we touch on all sorts of related topics: what the different levels of AI are, how safe the roads can get, the mix of hardware and software in modern vehicle safety systems and much, much more!

Dinos Iordanou

My guest for this episode is Dinos Iordanou (player link), former Chairman and CEO of Arch, which he co-founded as Arch in 2001 and led from 2003 until retiring last year. In this incredible episode we cover: 

  • Dinos’ homeland of Cyprus (who is his favorite Cypriot? Who is the best Cypriot soccer player of all time? Where did a poor, young Dinos vacation and why?)
  • ‘Crappy’ jobs (and why Dinos loved them all), 
  • What quality Hank Greenberg and Warren Buffett share (Dinos worked with both!)
  • What lessons Dinos learned from Warren Buffet
  • The power of culture to transform firms
  • Philotimo, what it is and why it matters for a leader

An amazing show and my deep appreciation of Dinos for his time.