Unknown concentrations of risk

Photo by John Stewart, May, 2001.

I was driving across the Lafayette Bridge on my way to work five years ago when I turned on my radio to catch the scores and instead heard the national news anchors and reporters describing how an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. Details were sketchy, they were trying to find out more, they didn’t know what kind of plane it was for certain, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the ’93 truck bombing in the WTC parking ramp…and then a reporter said, “My God, something has hit the other tower!”

When I got to work a crowd of my co-workers were cycling through our largest conference room, trying to watch a portable 6-inch black and white tv screen that was the only thing we had capable of pulling in a signal. Like the rest of the country we desperately wanted to know what was going on, what was going to happen, and how bad was it. We also had a very pressing, personal need to get a handle on what was happening.

I work for a large global financial services company. The division I’m in is a very small part of that empire, and we deal in rather esoteric product lines that are unnoticed by most consumers. Essentially, we provide insurance to insurance companies to help them limit catastrophic losses, and on that day an important part of our business included backstopping workers’ compensation plans. Additionally, much of our business is placed by brokerage companies and many of these had offices in the two towers. There were a lot of personal and business contacts concentrated in those buildings, many of whom had become friends with our employees. As the horror of the day continued to mount, we were also starting to realize that these friends and contacts also fell into another category: they were our insureds. One of our people, staring woodenly at the tiny monitor, asked aloud, “How many insured lives do we have in those buildings?” Someone from the work comp line said, weakly, “I don’t know, but it has got to be a lot.”

Already, company headquarters in Europe was in touch with our local leadership, wanting to know what the potential claims might be because they were being pressured by investment analysts to release a report as quickly as possible. The fact was, because of the nature of the business and the tools that were available at the time, we had almost no way of knowing what the impact might be. We knew what insurance companies were our clients, of course, but didn’t know much about what companies they were insuring, let alone where those insureds might actually work. It’s what our industry refers to as “unknown concentrations of risk.” With limited data, working by guess and by gut, overnight we provided a chilling estimate roughly equal to our division’s expected earnings for the year. Ultimately, we’d be wrong by about a factor of eight — and on the low side.

We also had about a dozen of our people traveling around the country that day, many of them on the East Coast. We couldn’t reach them, their respective staffs were digging up their itineraries, trying to cross-reference them with what details were available through the media, and trying to reassure family members calling in with the inevitable, desperate question…”Do you know what flight so-and-so was supposed to be on?” Thankfully, by the end of the day, everyone was safely accounted for, though with some interesting stories to tell. One of our guys was bound for Detroit and his flight was redirected to the K.I. Sawyer Air Force base in Michigan. Of course, he knew nothing about what was going on, and looking out the window as they landed he thought that it sure didn’t look anything like any airport he’d ever landed at before. With the airlines grounded he and our other employees in similar circumstances had to piece together arrangements for getting home. Inconvenient, sure, but nothing like the desperate days ahead for the families of the missing – and for our business as the full impact of the day’s events began to emerge.

Within the next two months the corporate decision was made that we would no longer take on risks for business with “unknown concentrations”. The work comp area was especially susceptible to this type of business, and that unit was shut down by the end of the year, sucking that group of my friends and co-workers into the economic downturn that was gathering momentum. In January of 2002 I walked through the part of our offices where they had been and the empty chairs and cubes were yet another symbolic reminder that the “missing” from 9/11 extended far beyond the borders of New York City. At least my friends were still alive even if they had been cut loose into a world that had been shaken to othe point where none of us could predict what it would look like in five years.

Ironically, several months before 9/11 some of our brightest folks had already started looking at what ways and tools could be used to pinpoint insurance risk on a real-time basis. It wasn’t an exactly unknown concept, but the amount of data gathering that would have to be done was considered to be too prohibitive. It was thought that no insurance company would be willing to provide that kind of information even if they had a way to collect it. In one day, however, people realized they had to think differently, and obviously not just in the insurance business. My company in general, and my division in particular, rebounded in the coming years. We implemented the tools and techniques once thought to be too complicated and unwieldy and they are now a fact of life throughout our industry.

9/11 was a day when many things once thought to be impossible suddenly became possible. My division, my company, my industry, my country … we all began to look at things differently, and to learn from the experience. I think that at the level of my business, we’ve learned from these hard lessons and applied them. The scars of that day are still sobering reminders that direct our thinking and plans for the future; we will never again think like we did on September 10, 2001. Sadly, on the political level those lessons appeared to have been cleared away like the rubble from Ground Zero and the field has been left open once again for political gamesmanship and maneuvering while altogether too many people forget that the ultimate score isn’t being kept by political points. The unknown concentrations of risk are still out there.

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  1. Pingback: 10 years ago, and 10 years on | thenightwriterblog.com

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