Les Futurs or L”Avenir? It makes all the difference…

Forgive the French!

However, the title was prompted by pondering the work of the late Arie De Geus [including “The Living Company”], recently mentioned in a thoughtful column by Andrew Thornhill of the Financial Times when discussing the possible distinctions between those companies which will, and those which will not survive The Great Cessation.

For business executives of a certain “vintage”, De Geus (who formally retired in 1980 after 38 years) was famous as the leader of Royal Dutch Shell’s (RDS), Strategic Planning Unit, and thus the main progenitor of the process of scenario planning- something which may well be taken for granted now, yet which was little short of revolutionary in its day.

What De Geus tried to do was make managers distinguish between “l’avenir” and “les futurs”. The former essentially means “what will come”, and the latter “potential futures”. While both matter, it is the ability to foresee and adapt to the latter which is fundamental for any entity’s long-term survival and prosperity.

As De Geus pointed out, those companies, which he termed “intolerant”, going for “maximum results with minimum resources” appear to do remarkably well when times are stable. However, when dislocation, stresses or volatility appear, they become very vulnerable to existential risks. And the consequences of the pandemic certainly count as a “dislocation”!

De Geus’ underlying thesis was that companies which manage to survive for decades, then centuries, and occasionally a millennium*, treat their enterprises as “living work communities”, rather than just as purely economic machines- i.e., people, not industrial or financial assets. Consider that the average life of a S&P company is now estimated at well under 50 years, while the corporation in a recognizably modern “joint stock company” guise is barely 200 years old.   In fact, De Geus found that the average “life expectancy” of a northern hemisphere business was no more than 20 years.

So, what did De Geus see as the characteristics of resilient, long-lived businesses?

  • Their managers realize that they are a community of human beings in business to stay alive and prosper
  • They are good at managing for change- i.e., adaptable- as their environment changes
  • They are tenacious in protecting their capital, and so financially conservative
  • All the members of the business know what its goals are
  • New ideas are tolerated, rather than ignored or even suppressed
  • They value people, not assets
  • Their corporate structures are flexible in terms of control and decision-making
  • They are learning organizations
  • Managers and executives see themselves as stewards for the next generation- i.e., they are not selfishly self-interested.

At Awbury, we cannot say whether we shall survive as a business for centuries. However, as our business is based upon our ability to adapt as the world and its risks change around us, and on providing bespoke solutions to our clients as their needs change, we aim to give it a good try!

And a parting quote from De Geus: “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage”. Indeed!

The Awbury Team

*For the record, the world’s oldest surviving business is considered to be Kongo Gumi, a Japanese construction business, founded in 578AD and specializing in Buddhist temples; while the oldest in Europe is believed to be Stiftskeller St. Peter, a bierkeller/restaurant founded within an Austrian monastery in 803AD. The sublime, vs. the hedonistic!

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We are all risk-takers now… whether we realize it or not…!

Most financial and many corporate businesses, (re)insurers such as Awbury included, have someone in the role entitled “CRO” and the concept of Enterprise Risk Management (ERM- in essence meant to symbolize an holistic approach to managing all the key risks a business faces) is now a given, on which managements are judged by markets, public rating agencies, regulators and peers. This is usually coupled with the “three lines of defence” approach to mitigating risks (much beloved of regulators) through involving business originators, the ERM function (or some analogous central function) and Internal Audit (which checks on everyone else) as supposedly sequential lines of defence against loss.

So, one would think that the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen simply another risk to be managed, albeit a potentially existential one in some cases.

In many ways that is, of course, true. However, we think there is more to it than that, because it requires starting from the assumption that, while the risk may be mitigated, it may not become definable or manageable for some time. So, using prior heuristics or parameters may well be dangerously self-delusional. Events quite clearly demonstrate that the standard linear, non-complex theories and practices that still underpin much financial and risk management theory cannot really cope with the complex, dynamic systems created by an event such as the pandemic.

A natural disaster, however bad, usually has a finite scope, even if there may be lingering second- or third-order effects (think of Chernobyl, or Fukushima); and then things go back to “normal”, until the next time. Models are updated and tweaked; pricing modified- i.e., increased (if possible).

The current pandemic is probably different. Of course (as we have written) there have been pandemics before, ones far more devastating in proportionate terms than the current one is ever likely to be, such as the Antonine Plague, the Black Death or the Spanish ‘Flu’. However, the severe economic consequences (and therefore many of the human costs) of the Covid-19 pandemic, while triggered by an epidemiological (and ever-changing) calculation, are largely man-made. Thus, successfully navigating Its outcome depends not so much on understanding the epidemiology, as on the behaviours of those supposedly rational, but inherently unpredictable agents known as human beings, and the capacity of our institutions and leadership to adapt and balance competing priorities.

And what if a major “normal” natural disaster were to occur during the depths of the pandemic, such an earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane and so on? Are existing risk models really going to be able to cope with a non-correlated, but significant CAT event, or several? After all, Nature is completely indifferent to the fate of Humanity.

All of this emphasizes that every single member of any entity, whether government, commercial or NGO, is a risk-taker as well as a risk-manager simply by trying to function and be productive in such times. ‘Twas ever thus, but the global pandemic has rammed the point home. Avoiding the risks is a risk in itself!

Fortunately, human beings and well-designed and well-managed institutions have, time and again, shown their resilience in the face of severe risks. This in time should be no different. It behooves the (re)insurance industry as a whole to demonstrate that being in the business of taking and managing risks is not merely a slogan, but an enduring reality. Individual businesses may become stressed, but the industry as a whole should be more than capable of weathering the storm; fulfilling its role; and prospering over time. Demand is not likely to go away in the longer term, even though it may be severely challenged in the immediate future.

At Awbury, with our range of flexible and bespoke, credit, economic and financial risk management tools and products, we stand ready to meet and master the challenge. It is why we exist!

The Awbury Team

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The Oil Markets Enter the Realm of the Surreal…

Within the space of a few weeks, the global market for crude oil has truly entered the realm of the surreal. Dali’s painting entitled “The Persistence of Memory” comes to mind, with its images of melting watch faces amidst a barren wasteland. After all, one has to struggle to remember that there was once concern that WTI could go to USD 200/barrel; yet, on Monday 20th April, the  price for US WTI May 2020 contract fell to minus USD 40/barrel, before retracing to around USD 20/barrel in early May.

Mental “whiplash” probably cannot begin to describe the experience of long-term observers of the markets, as they try to come to terms with the seeming absurdity of recent events- a ruinous price war catalyzed by Saudi Arabia in response to supposed Russian “intransigence” over continuing a programme of relatively modest production cuts, followed by an “historic”  and unprecedented agreement by the so-called OPEC+ to cut some 10 million barrels from daily supply then averaging 100 million barrels; followed by a generational collapse in the price of WTI to USD 18/barrel- and then the hitherto unthinkable and unseen negative prices within the course of a day.

And yet, as always, it pays to look beyond the headlines and ask what is the significance of what happened, given that the price of the major global crude oil benchmark, ICE Brent, while very weak, having fallen to a 2-decade low below USD 20/barrel at the same time,  did not respond with as much volatility to the WTI move- opening up an absurdly wide differential of some USD 60/barrel for at least a short time – so, some 3X the price of WTI in absolute terms, and theoretically infinitely greater, as the latter was negative, which is ludicrous!

For one thing, the US WTI and ICE Brent indices, although often seen as comparable, are quite different in reach and mechanism. The former is a domestic index, for physical delivery into one geographical location, Cushing, OK; while the latter is mainly sea-borne, cash settled and global. They may seem the same, but they are not. This demonstrates the need for precise knowledge.

On the other, in the wider sense, the event is a clear signal of widespread dislocation and distress; because no such event has occurred in the recorded history of the crude oil markets dating back to Titusville, PA in 1859.

However, what no-one can yet know are the longer-term consequences of all the price volatility and precipitate fall in demand (estimated at up to one third of “normal” levels). Crude oil remains, for now at least, an essential commodity and underpins the economies of many states to a level where loss of revenues will have serious domestic and geopolitical repercussions. On the one hand, governments affected can point out that it is “not their fault”; on the other, it will reveal the fragility of their budgets and long-standing failures of policy and waste.

This situation provides yet another example of the need to look at an issue or risk holistically- both understanding its specific, idiosyncratic components and being able to set it into a wider context, and consider second and further order effects. This is an approach which is fundamental to Awbury’s risk selection and risk management. If the answer to something seems simple or “obvious”, the odds are, in our complex and inter-connected world, that one has missed a factor that could shift the risk from being sound to one where there is the danger of becoming the “dumb money”- and Awbury is not the “dumb money”!

The Awbury Team

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Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…

A phrase from a children’s nursery rhyme may seem somewhat out of place in a corporate blog. However, recent and continuing events have amply demonstrated that words- their presence or absence, meaning and construction- can be just as dangerous in their potential for harm as any physical threat.

We live in a time when the seemingly archaic Latin terms “Fidentia” (Confidence) and “Pactum Meum Dictum” (My Word is My Bond), perhaps sometimes seen as tired tropes, have come to represent a reality in which the fundamental premise of the (re)insurance markets- that all valid claims will be paid promptly and in full- is being challenged by the perception, right or wrong, that this may only be true if the existence and expected parameters of a risk had been anticipated by pricing actuaries and risk managers when designing and offering a particular coverage.

We cannot and would not offer an opinion on the merits of any disputes which have arisen, or may yet arise, in relation to whether the particular wording of a policy mean “X” or “Y”. However, anything that threatens the perception of the integrity of the “promise to pay” quite clearly should be of concern to the industry as a whole. Ultimately, any business (particularly when its performance is inextricably linked with some form of loss) is based upon trust and reputation, so anything which brings that into doubt is potentially damaging.

The Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences have so far upended many hitherto unquestioned assumptions across whole swathes of industry, government, finance and academia; and (re)insurance is now no exception. For example, one can argue that the current economic dislocation resulting from the pandemic is a man-made, “unnatural” disaster. Rather than allowing businesses and markets to function, governments have deliberately (in order to minimize the potential loss of life) caused enormous and rising economic loss, the scale and consequences of which cannot yet properly be measured. Of course, the better-functioning and more solvent ones are trying to mitigate at least some of the damage they are causing, but the complexity of the current situation and the inter-dependencies it reveals mean that setting parameters around all the direct and contingent consequences is extraordinarily difficult.

In such circumstances, the more one can do to introduce at least some element of simplicity and certainty the better. This can be in the nature of the products one offers; how they are delivered; or in their terms and conditions. Such an approach benefits all parties, because it increases understanding and trust, and reduces the scope for future argument over whether or not any contract agreed was fulfilled.

At Awbury, we have always tried to ensure in everything we do that not only does the Insured (and any other parties involved) receive exactly the coverage sought (removing the “basis risk” that plagues off-the-shelf, commoditized offerings), but that, to the full extent possible, there is absolute certainty that the “promise to pay” can and will be honoured without cavil in the event of a valid claim. Ambiguity and misunderstanding serve no purpose to anyone.

The Awbury Team

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