Actuaries in the Time of Coronavirus

How should actuaries think and spend their time with regard to the pandemic? Robert Eaton

Photo: iStock.com/MF3d

Actuaries are reacting personally and professionally to the spread across the globe of the novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease COVID-19. I write this from my home office, and if you are reading this in April 2020, it’s likely that you’re doing so from your own home. Much of the global workforce is self-quarantining in an effort to socially distance one another to retard the fast spread of COVID-19.

How should actuaries in particular think and spend their time in regard to the pandemic?

BUILD MODELS (AND KEEP THEM FOR NEXT TIME)

In the wake of COVID-19 I have been engaged by the inundation of statistical modeling of the pandemic I see. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)1 produces an intuitive and helpful interactive online model results page2 illustrating state-by-state forecasts for hospital bed utilization and expected deaths due to COVID-19. Hospital beds represent a critical measurement today, since COVID-19 can greatly impact a society by overwhelming its health care system’s capacity. The supporting IHME research paper3 describes the underlying model and the assumptions, reasoning and justification for the results.

The Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, led by Neil Ferguson, published health care utilization model results on March 16, 2020.4 Their modeling arguably shifted public discourse about COVID-19, resulting in a more immediate and larger-scale response by nations, including the United States.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security has dubbed the use of infectious disease modeling to support public health decision-making as “outbreak science.”5

I am particularly impressed with many of the data visualizations I find (such as on the IHME’s website).

I don’t endorse any particular model, but we should all be impressed by how quickly these organizations have responded to the COVID-19 threat by producing results with supporting data, assumptions and documentation of their methodology. Actuaries will quickly recognize in these reports many of the key components of actuarial communication:6 cautions to the reader regarding uncertainty or risk, reliance on data sources, and the documentation of assumptions and methods.

Many actuaries will develop models of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the least to understand the impact of the virus and the fallout it will have on our business. In addition to modeling asset and liability assumptions, the parameters of these models may include some atypical (for actuaries) assumptions, such as: virus infection rate, population density, case fatality rate, hospitalization fatality rate, the length of time it will take to develop an effective vaccine and the rate of virus transmission. Many actuaries will build simulation models to estimate the impact of COVID-19 on populations.

As actuaries develop these models, it is critical to document our work and source of assumptions. Pandemics are fortunately rare, but when they arise, they often take us by surprise. Documenting our work well preserves the intellectual capital that we could need quick access to in the future.

WORK ACROSS DISCIPLINES

The impact of COVID-19 is global and has already disrupted daily life for most of us. The virus will impact almost all facets of actuarial work, both on- and off-balance sheet. Actuaries can provide insights to our businesses through evaluation of COVID-19’s effect on assets and liabilities across all insurable risks. The most visceral and public reactions to COVID-19 may come from news reports about the strain on our health care system (morbidity), and from the daily tracking of deaths (mortality). COVID-19 has cast additional uncertainty on asset markets and caused federal governments to reduce interest rates in the face of a recession, key factors in managing longevity risk. And with a large share of the population self-isolating and spending less time on the roads and more in their homes, home and auto insurers can expect to see this unique policyholder behavior translate to an emerging experience that is different than expected. Disability insurance and workers’ compensation insurance in the United States will see shocks in experience due to the rapid rise in the rate of unemployment that began at the end of March.

During this time, actuaries may find that our work requires specialized clinical expertise. We can reach outside of traditional actuarial practices to gain insights from epidemiologists, virologists and experts in other medical fields. The context of any analysis of pandemics that actuaries may produce can be made more accurate by getting input and feedback from other experts in disciplines who routinely study these topics.

The value of enterprise risk management (ERM) tools actuaries use can be seen during this pandemic, in particular how they give us the ability to work across disciplines to recognize the correlated impacts of large-scale events. Multi-line insurers will have dashboards in place to register the effect of events across many product lines and throughout their organization. Reinsurance is a critical tool for insurance companies, and reinsurers may absorb some catastrophic losses during a pandemic. To mitigate their risk, reinsurers themselves may purchase pandemic bonds, such as those issued by the World Bank in 2017.7

LEARN THE DISTRIBUTED WORK MODEL

On a personal level, actuaries will need to learn for themselves the distributed work model—that is, working from home or working remotely—if they have not already. Many actuarial employers had already reached a comfortable distributed work model prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but plenty of actuaries still traveled every day to brick-and-mortar workplaces until recently. To effectively do work outside an office, we must change the way we think about our business model.

Matt Mullenweg, a developer of WordPress software and the founder of Automattic, has spent more than a decade running successful companies with distributed work models. Mullenweg contributes to the Distributed.blog and has given TED Talks8 and produced podcasts9 that describe his formula for success with distributed work models.

Most people in my office, including me, have not worked from home for an extended time. This will be a learning experience for us all. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources (including this index)10 to help us adapt during this time.

Here are some of the behaviors I hope to adopt more in the coming weeks and months:

  • Actively listening during videoconferences: avoiding multitasking and demonstrating my attentiveness by taking notes and visibly reacting to what I hear with facial expressions and hand gestures.
  • Accepting more requests to talk if I’m not very busy (and making videoconferencing my preference for these interactions). My team and others can’t stop by my (physical) desk now, but I should still be receptive to drop-ins, even if they’re virtual.
  • Effectively using instant messaging (IM), with an app such as Slack, Discord or Microsoft Teams, for real-time chats and urgent conversations.
  • Working from a shared screen. You can use a shared screen or a shared document to take notes during a meeting as you talk through a model.
  • Conversing with colleagues about topics other than work. We can have short, casual, virtual “good morning” meetings and gather as a larger group for an end-of-the-week “happy hour” videoconference.
  • Asking very clear questions. When we can’t read body language or ask a clarifying question over cube walls, our writing must be super concise. Use nouns instead of pronouns; make questions explicit and specific and respond to them point-by-point.

Even these techniques won’t all work if an office operates across many time zones, and if your company is serious about making a permanent move to a distributed work model, then Mullenweg has many deeper insights about that transformation. (Listen to one of his recent podcasts.) Meaningful connections are more important than ever when your entire staff is working from home offices, so focus on your correspondence to really understand what they are saying. Repeat back to them what you think you heard, and don’t leave any uncertainty about the next steps of a project.

COMMUNICATE

During the time of the coronavirus, actuaries should put to public use our communication skills. We have long been on the front lines of translation in our professional sphere, explaining with respect and clarity the complex models that underlie our estimates about uncertain future events.

Actuary, this is our time. Network and form new connections with people from other professions. Educate yourself about the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and learn new models and techniques. Think across disciplines and ask yourself how your knowledge can support others’ work.

The news around COVID-19 is littered with complex ideas issued from technical experts that demand thought and (likely) translation for laypeople to understand them. Actuaries are skilled at both understanding exponential processes and growth and discussing these in accessible, conversational language. So, while we should never misrepresent ourselves as experts when we are not, who better than actuaries to explain the difference in rates (e.g., per capita) from absolutes (e.g., total counts) or to describe statistical ranges of uncertainty, such as confidence intervals?

We talk daily in our jobs about testing various scenarios and envisioning counterfactuals, and we constantly ask ourselves, “Compared to what?” To think like an actuary is to think probabilistically. We understand the difficulties of measurement and that there are pitfalls in any data. We know that models are simplifications, and what that means when interpreting them. We know that models can be extremely useful when reviewed in the appropriate way, and that they can mislead us if we use them for other reasons.

Take the time to discuss complex ideas with your neighbors and your significant other. Offer up a great mathematical analogy to your niece or nephew, your parents and the new friends you met on the Tiger King fan webpage. Consider writing down your own thoughts on social media or sharing them on blog posts and podcasts.

COVID-19 will likely change the way we live in many ways. The virus has already proved to be one of the most disruptive exogenous events of my lifetime, but in today’s interconnected world there is a chance it won’t be the last. Actuaries will rise to this occasion and reveal ourselves to be even-keeled professionals who understand complexity and nuance and can communicate risks and uncertainty to our ultimate stakeholder, the public.

Robert Eaton, FSA, MAAA, is on the Board of Directors of the Society of Actuaries (2019–2022). He is a principal with Milliman Inc. in Tampa, Florida. He can be reached on Twitter.

References:

  1. 1. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) (accessed March 30, 2020).
  2. 2. IHME COVID-19 Projections (accessed March 30, 2020).
  3. 3. IHME COVID-19 Health Service Utilization Forecasting Team, and Christopher JL Murray. Forecasting COVID-19 Impact on Hospital Bed-days, ICU-days, Ventilator-days and Deaths by U.S. State in the Next 4 Months. Healthdata.org, March 25, 2020 (accessed March 30).
  4. 4. Ferguson, Neil M., et al., on Behalf of the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team. Impact of Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) to Reduce COVID19 Mortality and Healthcare Demand. Imperial College London, March 16, 2020 (accessed March 30, 2020).
  5. 5. Rivers, Caitlin, Elena Martin, Diane Meyer, Thomas V. Inglesby, and Anita J. Cicero. Modernizing and Expanding Outbreak Science to Support Better Decision Making During Public Health Crises: Lessons for COVID-19 and Beyond. The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, March 24, 2020 (accessed March 30, 2020).
  6. 6. Actuarial Standards Board (ASB). Actuarial Standard of Practice (ASOP) No. 41, Actuarial Communications. December 2009 (accessed March 30, 2020).
  7. 7. Baker, Mark. When Will Coronavirus Covid-19 Trigger the World Bank’s Pandemic Bond? Euromoney.com, March 4, 2020 (accessed March 30, 2020).
  8. 8. Mullenweg, Matt. Why Working From Home is Good for Business. TED Talks, February 9, 2019 (accessed March 30, 2020).
  9. 9. Mullenweg, Matt. Podcast: Distributed, With Matt Mullenweg. Distributed.blog, May 29, 2019, to January 9, 2020 (accessed March 30, 2020).
  10. 10. Rozic, Jeff. On Working Remotely: An Automattic Reader. WordPress.com, March 20, 2020 (accessed March 30, 2020).

Copyright © 2020 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.