Risk Portfolio Management

In 1952, Harry Markowitz wrote the article “Portfolio Selection” which became the seed for the theory called Modern Portfolio Theory. Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) promises a path to follow to achieve the maximum return for a given level of risk for an investment portfolio.

It is not clear who first thought to apply the MPT ideas to a portfolio of risks in an insurer. In 1974, Gustav Hamilton of Sweden’s Statsforetag proposed the “risk management circle” to describe the interaction of all elements in the risk management process, including assessment, control, financing and communication. In 1979, Randell Brubaker wrote about “Profit Maximization for a multi line Property/Liability Company.” Since then, the idea of risk and reward optimization has become to many the actual definition of ERM.

Standard & Poor’s calls the process “Strategic Risk Management”.

“Strategic Risk Management is the Standard & Poor’s term for the part of ERM that focuses on both the risks and returns of the entire firm. Although other aspects of ERM mainly focus on limiting downside, SRM is the process that will produce the upside, which is where the real value added of ERM lies.“

The Risk Portfolio Management process is nothing more or less than looking at the expected reward and loss potential for each major profit making activity of an insurer and applying the Modern Portfolio Management ideas of portfolio optimization to that risk and reward information.

At the strategic level, insurers will leverage the risk and reward knowledge that comes from their years of experience in the insurance markets as well as from their enterprise risk management (ERM) systems to find the risks where their company’s ability to execute can produce better average risk-adjusted returns. They then seek to optimize the risk/reward mix of the entire portfolio of insurance and investment risks that they hold. There are two aspects of this optimization process. First is the identification of the opportunities of the insurer in terms of expected return for the amount of risk. The second aspect is the interdependence of the risks. A risk with low interdependency with other risks may produce a better portfolio result than another risk with a higher stand alone return on risk but higher interdependence.

Proposals to grow or shrink parts of the business and choices to offset or transfer different major portions of the total risk positions can be viewed in terms of risk-adjusted return. This can be done as part of a capital budgeting/strategic resource allocation exercise and can be incorporated into regular decision-making. Some firms bring this approach into consideration only for major ad hoc decisions on acquisitions or divestitures and some use it all the time.

There are several common activities that may support the macro- level risk exploitation.

Economic Capital
Economic capital (EC) flows from the Provisioning principle. EC is often calculated with a comprehensive risk model consistently for all of the actual risks of the company. Adjustments are made for the imperfect correlation of the risks. Identification of the highest-concentration risks as well as the risks with lower correlation to the highest-concentration risks is risk information that can be exploited. Insurers may find that they have an advantage when adding risks to those areas with lower correlation to their largest risks if they have the expertise to manage those risks as well as they manage their largest risks.

Risk-adjusted product pricing
Another part of the process to manage risk portfolio risk reward involves the Consideration principle. Product pricing is “risk-adjusted” using one of several methods. One such method is to look at expected profits as a percentage of EC resulting in an expected return-to-risk capital ratio. Another method reflects the cost of capital associated with the economic capital of the product as well as volatility of expected income. The cost of capital is determined as the difference between the price to obtain capital and the rate of investment earnings on capital held by the insurer. Product profit projections then will show the pure profit as well as the return for risk of the product. Risk-adjusted value added is another way of approaching risk-adjusted pricing.

Capital budgeting
The capital needed to fulfill proposed business plans is projected based on the economic capital associated with the plans. Acceptance of strategic plans includes consideration of these capital needs and the returns associated with the capital that will be used. Risk exploitation as described above is one of the ways to optimize the use of capital over the planning period. The allocation of risk capital is a key step in this process.

Risk-adjusted performance measurement (RAPM)
Financial results of business plans are measured on a risk-adjusted basis. This includes recognition of the cost of holding the economic capital that is necessary to support each business as reflected in risk-adjusted pricing as well as the risk premiums and loss reserves for multi-period risks such as credit losses or casualty coverages. This should tie directly to the expectations of risk- adjusted profits that are used for product pricing and capital budgeting. Product pricing and capital budgeting form the expectations of performance. Risk-adjusted performance measurement means actually creating a system that reports on the degree to which those expectations are or are not met.

For non-life insurers, Risk Portfolio Management involves making strategic trade-offs between insurance, credit (on reinsurance ceded) and all aspects of investment risk based on a long-term view of risk-adjusted return for all of their choices.

Insurers that do not practice Portfolio Risk Management usually fail to do so because they do not have a common measurement basis across all of their risks. The recent move of many insurers to develop economic capital models provides a powerful tool that can be used as the common risk measure for this process. Economic capital is most often the metric used to define risk in the risk/reward equation of insurers.

Some insurers choose not to develop an EC model and instead rely upon rating agency or regulatory capital formulas. The regulatory and rating agency capital formulas are by their nature broad market estimates of the risk capital of the insurer. These formulae will over-state the capital needs for some of the insurer’s activity and understate the needs for others. The insurer has the specific data about their own risks and can do a better job of assessing their risks than any outsider could ever do. In some cases, insurers took high amounts of catastrophe exposure or embedded guarantee and option risks, which were not penalized in the generic capital formulas. In the end, some insurers found that they had taken much more risk than their actual loss tolerance or capacity.

Risk Portfolio management provides insurers with the framework to take full advantage of the power of diversification in their risk selection. They will look at their insurance and investment choices based on the impact, after diversification, on their total risk/reward profile. These insurers will also react to the cycles in risk premium that exist for all of their different insurance risks and for all of their investment risks in the context of their total portfolio.

Sales of most insurance company products result in an increase in the amount of capital needed by the business due to low or negative initial profits and the need to support the new business with Economic Capital. After the year of issue, most insurance company products will show annual releases of capital both due to the earnings of the product as well as the release of supporting capital that is no longer needed due to terminations of prior coverages. The net capital needs of a business arise when growth (new sales less terminations) is high and/or profits are low and capital is released when growth is low and/or profits are high.

The definition of the capital needs for a product is the same as the definition of distributable earnings for an entire business: projected earnings less the increase in Economic Capital. The capital budgeting process will then focus on obtaining the right mix of short and long term returns for the capital that is needed for each set of business plans.

Both new and existing products can be subjected to this capital budgeting discipline. A forecast of capital usage by a new product can be developed and used as a factor in deciding which of several new products to develop. In considering new and existing products, capital budgeting may involve examining historic and projected financial returns.

Pitfalls of Risk Portfolio Management

In theory, optimization processes can be shown to produce the best results for practitioners. And for periods of time when fluctuations of experience are moderate and fall comfortably within the model parameters, continual fine tuning and higher reliance on the modeled optimization recommendations produce ever growing rewards for the expert practitioner. However, model errors and uncertainties are magnified when management relies upon the risk model to lever up the business. And at some point, the user of complex risk models will see that levering up their business seems to be a safe and profitable way to operate. When volatility shifts into a less predictable and/or higher level, the highly levered company can find it self quickly in major trouble.

Even without major deviations of experience, the Risk Portfolio Management principles can lead to major business disruptions. When an insurer makes a major change in its risk profile through an acquisition or divestiture of a large part of their business, the capital allocation of all other activities may shift drastically. Strict adherence to theory can whipsaw businesses as the insurer makes large changes in business.

Insurers need to be careful to use the risk model information to inform strategic decisions without overreliance and abdication of management judgment. Management should also push usage of risk and reward thinking throughout the organization. The one assumption that seems to cause the most trouble is correlation. The saying goes that “in a crisis, all correlations go to one”. If the justification for a major strategic decision is that correlations are far from one, management should take note of the above saying and prepare accordingly. In addition management should study the variability of correlations over time. They will find that correlations are often highly unreliable and this should have a major impact on the way that they are used in the Risk Portfolio Management process.

Risk Portfolio Management is one of the Seven ERM Principles for Insurers

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