Distributed Ledgers in the Risk Markets (Part 3) - Insurance Thought Leadership

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December 1, 2017

Distributed Ledgers in the Risk Markets (Part 3)

Summary:

Risk is the killer app for distributed ledger technology, so it will likely take hold quickly in the insurance sector.

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In the opening segment of this series on complexity, I discussed the three network graphs that have emerged in the risk markets and which business models embody them.

For quick reference:

In the second segment, we discussed the emergence of P2P insurance, which will formalize the three core functions of the risk markets that currently exist in a “black market,” unformalized state. These functions are:

  • Risk transfer;
  • Escrow of funds for a defined purpose; and
  • Management of reallocation of escrowed funds.

This formalization will occur via the emergence of a platform that enables all of these functions to be accomplished by the users of the platform, bringing the existing P2P economic activity out of its black market state and into the light of day.

Risk is the killer app for distributed ledgers!

The focus of the blockchain community on banking has been an interesting side effect of the timing of the Bitcoin innovation that coincided with the collapse of the U.S. banking industry. The blockchain technology software went open source in January 2009, while the markets (DJIA, S&P 500 and NASDAQ) bottomed out in March 2009.

The term “distributed ledger” is synonymous with blockchain. Both refer to the technology of a shared digital ledger, upon which transactions are validated by a distributed set of servers using chronological, public and cryptographically secure methods. I prefer the term “distributed ledger” because, at its core, this technology is an accounting tool that enables a set of capabilities not previously attainable.

In a distributed ledger:

  • All transactions — or, in accounting vernacular, “ledger entries” — are validated using a distributed method, without requiring users to trust in a central authority who has control over all entries on the ledger.
  • There will be lower transaction costs — both in terms of less time and lower labor costs — because there will no longer be a need to coordinate a multitude of private, centralized corporate ledgers.
  • It will create an ability for end users to publicly escrow value on a platform that enables them to connect directly with each other, creating a P2P distributed graph and enabling both the trusted communication of and individualized control over the reallocation of their escrowed value.

I would like to introduce the idea of a “risk ledger,” which is any ledger where value is escrowed as a hedge against a risk so that the risk can be safely carried through time. Currently, insurance carriers operate risk ledgers as they escrow money against a risk over a segment of time. (I wonder if this is why insurance companies are called “carriers.”) The same goal can be easily accomplished using distributed ledger technology, albeit with some advantages over private, opaque, centrally controlled corporate ledgers.

See also: 5 Steps to Profitable Risk Taking  

Distributed ledgers enable individuals to escrow value in the light of day against a risk, carrying the risk safely through a segment of time until a loss event necessitates the reallocation to the user who experienced a loss event and the removal of that value from the distributed ledger. Risk is the killer app for distributed ledger technology; as such, I believe the timeline for adoption in the risk markets will be shorter than observed in the banking markets, where the technology itself needed time to mature.

Trust is a fundamental ingredient in all financial services, and trust is something that distributed-ledger technology has a unique ability to enable. Because all money that is escrowed on a distributed ledger as well as the movement of that money is visible to all, users can trust in the system without needing to trust any single validator, company or peer participating in the network.

It must be understood that all distributed ledgers are, inherently, a network. There are many distributed ledger networks out there, but I will use Ripple’s to exemplify how a P2P distributed risk ledger platform may look. Thankfully, Ripple spearheaded acceptance by international regulatory bodies on issues associated with distributed ledger technology. Another reason I choose to use Ripple is because of its two technical features: 1) It has built-in “trust lines,” which enable individuals to create an explicit network of other peers whom they trust, and 2) it has the built-in ability of order books, which can be used to make markets between different stores of value. There are other technical advantages of Ripple, but these two elements combine to make a powerful and open-source solution.

Trust lines function as roads upon which value can move around the ledger. If I trust you, then you can send me value. If I do not trust you, then you cannot send me value because there is no path for the value to travel upon. This capacity for individuals to control who they are willing to trust enables individual peers to self-assemble a “trust graph” mirroring and to document the reality of who is trustworthy. Because all financial services are predicated on trust, this can be thought of as the finance industry’s equivalent to Google’s link graph, Facebook’s social graph and LinkedIn’s colleague graph, etc. Whoever ends up building this “trust graph” will likely be capable of creating much more value for society than those other graph types because of the significant role that finance plays in society.

Peers can extend trust lines to other peers they personally know, trust and are willing to help. These trust line connections create a trust graph in the same way as friend connections on Facebook create the social graph. In this way, a P2P distributed trust graph can be self-assembled and emerge out of the actions of the individual peers. Building a distributed graph of roads and creating many paths upon which value can travel across the distributed risk ledger network is an example of a distributed managerial process.

To give some example of how escrowed funds would flow through this distributed trust graph, let’s look at a hypothetical loss event. When a loss event occurs, a user documents the loss, and other peers who trust that user can choose to send a small amount their own escrowed funds to help their friend. (There is a formalized financial model  I will not detail.) However, I was surprised to discover, after working out the model’s details, that the model actually existed 1,000 years before modern insurance methods came about in the mid-1600s.

Order books — and the ability to make markets — enable agents and insurance carriers to retain their relative roles as they exist in the industry today.

The platform can be set up in a way that agents can capture a fixed fee as a spread or a percentage of the money that flows through the users that trust the agent by extending the agent a trust line. This is akin to commissions.

The platform can be set up in a way that carriers can manage the funds, which users put on escrow, and can control which agents are allowed to access the carrier’s gateway. This enables carriers to essentially mirror the same function that the appointment process accomplishes today. Carriers can do this activity without invoking the regulatory burden of insurance laws; they only need to comply with MSB regulations. This would also enable carriers to earn float income on the newly escrowed balance.

Phase change innovations typically emerge to address an order of magnitude more complex than what preexisting methods could in the prior industrial age paradigm. Consider how much economic activity and the number of actors Uber can organize on a global scale versus the top-down methods of an industrial-age taxi company. In the risk markets, coming out of the industrial age, we can see many companies operating independently in each of the three graphs (which are intentionally siloed). To achieve an order of magnitude improvement, we must encompass and coordinate all three graphs structures onto a single platform.

See also: Are Portfolios Taking Too Much Risk?  

Currently, agents function as a hub of client trust. Agents enable clients to navigate the complicated insurance product space and achieve the distribution of insurance products backed up by carriers. On a Ripple ledger, the agent would be a centralized hub of trust lines, and the graph would show that many users trust the agent node.

Currently, carriers function as an access point and product provider, lifting the burden of regulatory compliance, administration and product creation from agents. Engaging with the platform, each carrier can independently escrow client money without hampering the client’s ability to connect with other peers who they trust but who may not be clients of the same insurance carrier. With order books, the carriers can trade escrowed funds to enable a user who has experienced a funded loss event to receive a single check from the carrier that that user does business with, even though many of the peers funding the coverage are not clients of that carrier and do not have funds escrowed with the carrier issuing the check. Via these order book connections, carriers’ relationships will create a decentralized graph on the platform.

Combining the peer-to-peer distributed trust line graph, the centralized graph that is the hub of trust connections surrounding the agent and the decentralized graph of carrier-to-carrier order book connections, the platform can facilitate the coordination of all three graphs within a single system — all while relinquishing ultimate control of the flow of funds to the individual peers of the platform. This achieves a distributed managerial method of the reallocation process applied to the escrowed funds. This also alleviates the cost of adjusting claims and the exposure to fraud from the participating carrier’s perspective, as well as the distribution of the costs associated with the adjusting process across the peers participating in the network.

As is explained in his book “Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order from Atoms to Economies,” MIT’s Cesar Hidalgo argues that we are at a point when firms need to network if they desire to continue to create value for society in excess of what any single firm can create alone.

Via a distributed risk ledger network, many carrier firms can run the servers that maintain the whole ledger. This gives each carrier an equal vision into the ledger and removes the need for any carrier to submit control to another carrier that is tasked with running the entire system. Most importantly, these methods function as a shared back office so that no single firm bears the burden of the costs associated with managing all of the small loss events. Additionally, the cost of the system’s management does not need to be duplicated and absorbed by each participating firm. This is essentially how Ripple is being implemented in the banking industry to reduce the costs of international payments and increase the speed of international flow of funds.

Some examples:

  • Firms in the home and auto insurance business can network to facilitate a ledger with other home and auto insurance firms, helping homeowners who experience losses that are under the deductible or excluded from the policy form.
  • Life insurance firms can facilitate their own ledger networking with other life insurance firms, enabling coverage for clients who do not meet underwriting requirements, such as those over the age of 75 or with a terminal disease.
  • Firms in health insurance can network to facilitate a ledger with other health insurance firms to better enable users to cover high deductibles, only invoking their traditional insurance contracts for unexpected, large incidents.

By networking, firms can enable the existing P2P risk transfer behavior to occur with less friction and bring this important economic activity out of its black market state and into the light of day on a formalized platform. Once the economic activity is occurring on a formalized platform, one would expect to see, like was observed with Uber and AirBnB, a resulting boom in the aggregate amount of the economic activity, growing the entire risk market’s pie and improving the risk market’s value add to society.

See also: 4 Steps to Integrate Risk Management

In the next segment of this series, I will consider possible changes to the risk market’s current equilibrium state and what that equilibrium may look like after the phase change has occurred.

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About the Author

Ron Ginn is a financial engineer who has focused on “peer-to-peer insurance” since 2013 and who sees blockchain as the enabling technology for scalable trust networks.

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