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First Word: Forward view drives best decisions

First Word: Forward view drives best decisions

With the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. bringing its annual conference back to New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, it's probably little surprise that the first question to a panel of top industry executives gathered at the conference a few weeks ago focused on whether there's "real science" behind the industry's models and its catastrophe underwriting.

Evan Greenberg, president and chief executive officer of Hamilton, Bermuda-based ACE Ltd., told the audience, "There is a science and there is a framework" to those industry activities, but cautioned that that science shouldn't give insurance buyers too much comfort.

"It's a crude science and it's an evolving science," Mr. Greenberg said. "And those models probably are as good as the next cat season."

Another member of the executive panel, Shivan S. Subramaniam, chairman and CEO of Johnston, R.I.-based FM Global, agreed that there's an "evolution" in risk modeling, but emphasized that what the models really provide is a tool for helping insurers manage aggregations of risk.

"The thing to remember is that models don't predict disaster," he said. "What they do do is predict what aggregations should be, given a certain set of circumstances."

The executives on the RIMS panel discussed a wide range of other topics as well during the 90 minutes or so they were on stage, ranging from broker compensation to industry diversity to the state vs. federal regulation debate. I'll examine some of those issues more fully in an upcoming Industry Focus.

Overall, though, I think much of the discussion showed an industry looking to respond—as it often must—to change, whether in the weather, demographics or technology.

On the subject of technology, before the executives on the RIMS panel began answering questions, insurance industry consultant Myron Picoult cited information technology as an area where he thinks the industry can do better.

While the industry does a good job of collecting data, he said, it doesn't do as good a job as it could of using it. "The bottom line," Mr. Picoult said, "is the industry has to do a better job on the IT side."

With Microsoft Corp. based in Redmond, Wash., the Seattle area is often seen as an information technology hotbed. So it was interesting to hear the top executive of a Seattle-based insurer offer some thoughts on technology the week before RIMS.

The occasion was the 20th Annual MSU Insurance Day at Mississippi State University last month, and the speaker was Paula Rosput Reynolds, president and CEO of Safeco Corp.

Ms. Reynolds covered a lot of ground in discussing "Disruptive Forces in Insurance," including what she described as a technology "arms race" underway between insurance and the banking industry, a race in which the insurance industry, she said, is "a little behind."

The banking industry, Ms. Reynolds said, tends to be more "customer facing" than the insurance industry in its technology investments, though she said she feels there's no reason the insurance industry couldn't follow suit.

The key, she said, is "You have to know how to deploy smartly and you have to have a vision around the future." With that in mind, Safeco plans to include some of its product development folks in upcoming meetings with Microsoft. "It's really important to us to try to program ahead rather than be programming in the rear view mirror," Ms. Reynolds said.

As companies move forward with IT investments, Safeco's is probably a good model—the best decisions will be those made looking toward the changes that will drive and reflect future business strategy, rather than those made with an eye on the past.