July 11, 2017
Does Peer-to-Peer Fit in Risk Markets? (Part 2)
by Ron Ginn
P2P is actually iterative, not disruptive, as practiced in insurance today. But important new forms will emerge before long.
In the first of this series of four segments, we looked at the current state of the risk markets and the insurance industry. In this segment, we will look at how peer-to-peer (P2P) fits.
First, P2P is not mutual insurance. While the mutual insurance model is in more of the same spirit as P2P than corporate insurers are, mutuals are still operating primarily with the same business methods that corporate insurance companies use, and the financial service is still an indemnity insurance contract. The same would apply to the fraternals.
P2P is also not just a behavioral economic twist on insurance to reduce fraud. While elements of P2P methods do invoke (and should employ) behavioral economic principles, employing these principles alone will not qualify a service offering as P2P. P2P is hyped to get insureds to convert their social network into insurance leads.
When done correctly, a P2P service offering should demonstrate a level of virility in excess of existing insurance offerings. But traditional insurance already achieves some virility — I am an insurance broker, and much of our business is already generated via client referrals — so virility alone would not be a key differentiator for P2P.
P2P, today, is not actually disruptive. Rather, it is only an iteration of insurance as we know it today. To believe otherwise is a route to strategic disaster.
But there are other methods that more fully embody P2P methods and will prove to be quite disruptive to the current balance existing in the risk markets.
Okay, so what is P2P?
In the first 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:
To dive into this, we first need to define the activity that the risk markets perform for society. Why did the risk markets emerge, and why does society engage with the market? There are three core societal functions that risk markets perform for society:
- Risk transfer;
- Escrow of funds for a defined purpose; and
- Management of reallocation of escrowed funds.
Let’s take a look at each of these functions and the methods deployed to accomplish them.
One of the core elements required to legally define a contract as an insurance contract is indemnity. Inherent in the term “indemnity” is the idea of risk transfer. Indemnity is defined as “compensation or payment for losses or damages,” which essentially means that experienced risk from a loss event has been transferred from one party to another.
While insurance is a highly efficient method of accomplishing some portion of total risk transfer, an insurance contract is only one of many methods humans use to transfer risk around society, and the method has its limitations.
Other formal risk transfer methods include: companies that offer consumers a warranty on their products and service companies that are bonded by creating the same effect as a warranty does for consumers of their service. In the financial markets, we see options and swaps, as well as letters of credit. Formalized charity efforts also amount to risk transfer. In the public sphere, as was demonstrated in 2008, society has formalized methods for transferring risk from systemically important private companies to the public, all backed by the government’s access to taxation revenue.
Informal methods of risk transfer that can be routinely observed include families and friends compensating each other for some risk that the other has experienced. The same behavior also emerges within groups and communities, both with and without the intentional purpose of risk transfer. These methods amount to “black market” methods because they are not formalized, and the economic activity is not taxed and does not contribute to GDP. However, the economic activity does and always will occur.
Escrow of Funds
With indemnity insurance and other formalized methods, every insured has paid a premium for the legal right to transfer their risk exposure to another party. Presumably, this transfer shifts risks from individuals to a group as a whole. These premium funds are held in escrow to assure participants that the system will work. This behavior can be viewed as an “escrowing of funds for a defined purpose.”
With informal methods, we do not observe this escrow pattern. Indeed, many families and friends have received news that someone has experienced a loss that they do not have the means to bear. It is important to note that the person who has experienced the loss, in many cases, has already engaged with the available formalized methods that the risk markets have on offer — but the risk is in excess of what those methods can cover. With insurance, this uncovered risk amount can take the form of a deductible, the exclusion of a peril or a limitation of coverage on a covered peril.
See also: 3rd Wave of P2P Insurance
Informal methods of risk transfer emerge to fill these segments of total risk, which formalized methods do not address. Because there are no funds that have been pre-paid and escrowed for the purpose of addressing these segments of risk, we observe informal methods of risk transfer employing a post-pay method of achieving coverage. This can be observed in the digital environment on crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe, where coverage for a loss is achieved after the event has occurred.
Management of Reallocation of Escrowed Funds
Formalized methods of redistributing escrowed funds, like insurance methods, employ a legal contract. In black and white, rules specify for what purpose escrowed funds will and will not be paid out by the system as coverage, and how the dollar amount of that coverage will be calculated. This legal contractual methodology creates the requirement for actuarial work.
Insurance companies employ statistical and actuarial methods to ensure that enough money is escrowed to accomplish the purpose for which the society agreed to escrow the funds but also that there are additional funds to pay for the costs of centralized managing of the reallocation process, including some additional funds for profit for the insurance company.
The degree to which these formalized methods necessitate the burning of escrowed funds is a reduction in efficiency. Internal process inefficiencies that exist in the companies managing the process effectively add to society’s realized risk from engaging with the insurance system’s methods.
Currently, informal methods obviously do not employ legal methods, as no funds have been put into escrow for any specific purpose. These informal methods for the redistribution of funds to achieve a transfer of risk unfold as individual peer decisions, directly between the two peers involved. This is an example of an emergent P2P behavior.
Now, let’s get back to the original question. What is P2P?
Whether we are taking about music files via Napster, transportation via Uber, housing via AirBnB or work via TaskRabbit, the amount of economic activity resulting from those P2P methods blossomed — but only after a platform enabled the formalization of the behavior that already existed in the world, albeit informally. In each of these markets, society built wonderful centralized organizations to accomplish the fundamental economic activity of the market.
In each of these markets, when a P2P platform was built — offering just the right degree of formalization, but not too much, to enable, but not inhibit, the connection of individual peers on the platform — economic activity grew drastically.
This is, fundamentally, an expansion of the market’s economic pie.
In the risk markets, we will see the emergence of a P2P platform that enhances the individual’s ability to network using distributed methods of management and to accomplish the process of reallocation of escrowed funds. With this platform, the three core functions driving society to engage with the risk markets will be accomplished by the individual actors without necessitating a central authority.
New technologies (such as distributed ledgers) and methods that, as it turns out, predate insurance by 1,000 years will converge, and the risk markets will see a P2P network come about. This network will be designed to accomplish a positive financial network effect that will create financial leverage, amplifying the amount of risk that individuals can cover with their own individually escrowed funds. P2P will effectively give users the option of “networked self-insurance” to better cover the gaps in total risk left by already formalized methods.
Insurance methods will not go away. The methods play an important role in how our existing financial system works.
But note what is not necessary for P2P: indemnity legal contracts, actuarial methods and a centrally controlled escrow account for processing the reallocation of those escrowed funds.
There is nothing wrong with these methods. They work quite well and systemically serve to mitigate the risk housed on lending banks’ balance sheets, albeit at the borrower’s cost. Lending activity also serves a systemically important role of enabling financial leverage for large capital purchases. However, that leverage comes with a risk. If a bank lends on a mortgage or auto loan and the underlying asset is destroyed, the loan on the bank’s balance sheet will have lost value. Indemnity insurance is likely to remain the only method of mitigating this balance sheet risk exposure that lenders will agree to accept. It would not be surprising to see the rise of insurance policies sold to banks on their loan portfolios — much like we see today occur in the process of securitization of the loan portfolios and somewhat similar to what we see with forced placed insurance.
See also: Is P2P a Realistic Alternative?
It appears that we are observing in the risk markets that the insurance industry has been behaving in a way that can be described as: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Great, but just be sure you insure the risk exposure.
There are new tools available to the risk markets, along with new behavioral patterns, and we should not be a surprised when we see new methods — P2P and otherwise — emerge to employ these new tools for the benefit of society.
In the next section of this series, I will dive into one of those tools: blockchain, a.k.a. distributed ledger technology.