Sean Park Portrait
Quote of The Day Title
As industries become digital industries they become free.
- Chris Anderson, Editor, Wired Magazine

Florida bets annual state budget on 23 Red.

Well not exactly but pretty damn close: replace 23 red with frequency and intensity of storms hitting population centers in Florida and it is spot on. Only with 23 Red, at least the probability is easy to price.

Of course, ‘gambling’ is illegal in the Sunshine State
and if any resident wanted to offer or take odds on the likelyhood of a hurricane hitting their home town, of course they would be breaking the law. The irony of the state taking a giant punt with their taxpayer’s dollars is of course almost certainly lost on the state government…

One of the most significant business and economic opportunities that will arise out of the changing techno-economic paradigm over the coming ten to twenty years is the rethinking and transformation of the business of insurance. The rise and rise of the risk quark will inevitably reshape the landscape of risk transfer and mitigation. But it won’t be easy. Indeed their will be many backward steps along the way as the trinity of inertia, vested interests, and outdated regulatory frameworks conspire to perpetuate the current model despite it’s increasingly obvious failings.

How else to explain the recent de facto nationalization of property insurance in the State of Florida? (from The Economist:)

…insurance companies are shedding customers as fast as they can…

…The slack is being picked up by a fast-growing state-run company, Citizens Property Insurance. Citizens is acting as the insurer of last resort, underwritten by the Florida Hurrican Catastrophe Fund, a pool financed by the state. In January the state decided it could resolve the crisis by expanding Citizens and making it more competitive with private companies. It is now by far the state’s largest home-insurance provider, with 1.3m clients.

…And by allowing Citizens to grow so big, in the eyes of many agents, the state is exposing itself to tremendous financial risk in the event of a large-scale disaster. Unlike private companies, which can seek reinsurance on the global market where risk is less concentrated, the state would have to go to its own taxpayers if a huge storm struck.

Now whether or not the state should bear the risk of weather-related property damage is in my opinion a political debate. What I find appalling is not that a democratically elected government decides (or not) to underwrite this risk, but that they do so in a completely reckless, opaque and market-distorting way. By not allowing the market to work – by pricing risk appropriately based on the market-determined probabilities of certain outcomes – the result is that the economy cannot optimally allocate resources and that the true cost of any subsidy is at once much higher (than it would otherwise be) and completely opaque. Furthermore it is unaccounted for: I doubt that the Florida government accounts reflect the enormous contigent liability they have committed their citizens to.

Just as physicists and chemists have conservation of mass and energy, so to are risk quarks ‘conserved’. Risk transfer and optimization is highly useful and increases overall wealth and utility in an economic system. But risks – like mass and energy – must be conserved. Call it the 1st Law of Financial Dynamics. (Park’s Law? anyone? anyone? … ;) ) One of the fundamental problems of the current risk management paradigm, is that it encourages – often with regulatory and governmental connivance – the dissimulation of ‘inconvenient’ high energy risk quarks.

What do I mean by ‘inconvenient’ risk quarks? These are the elements of risk in any system that when ‘removed’, allow all (or at least all incumbent) constituencies to have only positive outcomes. My contention is that risk is conserved so these elements are never truly removed, but only hidden from view. Worse, frequently the financial physics of segregating and obscuring these elements most often leads to an expensive and suboptimal distribution of risk throughout the system. Indeed -whilst I don’t know whether he would agree with any of my analysis – I believe that Warren Buffet’s view of (financial) derivatives as weapons of mass destruction, is credible only in the context of their (derivatives) bastardized deployment within a system that does not want or allow them to exist unfettered or transparently. The existing industry and governmental complex is applying the rules of classical finance to a new quantum world. With alarming consequences.

And don’t even get me started on sub-prime… (Remember always that gambling is illegal in the US. Well…only as long as it is done in a transparent and robust fashion. Embed it, hidden, within the existing fabric of business and of course it’s ok. Messy yes. But not threatening to the existing socio-institutional paradigm.)

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