Why Are We Under-Prepared When Disaster Strikes?

Why Are We Under-Prepared When Disaster Strikes?

Perhaps it’s a feature of working with so many Financial Services clients, but I’m surprised how often talk of investing in data turns to risk and preparing for disaster.

How important is it to prepare for high-likelihood/low-severity risks (the ‘day-to-day‘, if you like) verses low-likelihood/high-severity risks (potential disasters)? Is it worth only investing in the data needed to operate as you currently do, or should data plans be more ambitious?

So, a post that caught my eye this week was again published in a newsletter from Paul Carroll (Insurance Thought Leadership). Particularly because the topic has wider application than just insurance. It should be of concern for leaders everywhere.

We’ve shared in recent weeks on GDPR and the data implications of that regulation.

Even from that perspective, do you struggle to prepare for potential disasters?

In this short post, Professors Howard Kunreuther & Robert Meyer (from University of Pennsylvania) share 6 reasons why leaders fail to prepare for disasters…

When disaster strikes

When dawn broke on the morning of Sept. 8, 1900, the people of Galveston, Texas, had no inkling of the disaster that was about to befall them. The thickening clouds and rising surf hinted that a storm was on the way, but few were worried. The local Weather Bureau office, for its part, gave no reason to worry; no urgent warnings were issued, and no calls were made to evacuate. But by late afternoon it became clear that this was no ordinary storm. Hurricane-force winds of more than 100 mph were soon taking the city, driving a massive storm surge that devoured almost everything in its path. Many tried to flee, but it was too late. By the next day, more than 8,000 people were dead, the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in U.S. history.

Fast-forward to September 2008 when Hurricane Ike threatened the same part of the Texas coast — but this time it was greeted by a well-informed populace. Ike had been under constant surveillance by satellites, aircraft reconnaissance, and land-based radar for more than a week, with the media blasting a nonstop cacophony of reports and warnings, urging those in coastal areas to leave. The city of Galveston was also well-prepared: A 17-foot-high seawall that had been constructed after the 1900 storm stood ready to protect the city, and government flood insurance policies were available to residents who were at risk of property loss. Unlike in 1900, Texas residents really should have had little reason to fear. On their side was a century of advances in meteorology, engineering and economics designed to ensure that Ike would, indeed, pass as a forgettable summer storm.

Failing to prepare for disaster

It didn’t quite work out that way. Warnings were issued, but many in low-lying coastal communities ignored them — even when told that failing to heed the warnings meant they faced death. Galveston’s aging seawall turned out to be vulnerable; it was breached in multiple places, damaging roughly 80% of the homes and businesses in the city. The resort communities to the north on the Bolivar Peninsula, which never saw the need for a seawall, fared even worse, witnessing almost complete destruction. And among the thousands of homeowners who suffered flood losses, only 39% had seen fit to purchase flood insurance. In the end, Ike caused more than $14 billion in property damage and 100 deaths — almost all of it needless.

Why are we underprepared for disasters?

The gap between protective technology and protective action illustrated by the losses in Hurricane Ike is, of course, hardly limited to Galveston or to hurricanes. While our ability to foresee and protect against natural catastrophes has increased dramatically over the course of the past century, it has done little to reduce material losses from such events.
Rather than seeing decreases in damage and fatalities because of the aid of science, we’ve instead seen the worldwide economic cost and impact on people’s lives as hazards increased exponentially through the early 21st century, with five of the 10 costliest natural disasters in history with respect to property damage occurring since 2005. While scientific and technological advances have allowed deaths to decrease on average, horrific calamities still occur, as in the case of the 230,000 people estimated to have lost their lives in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami; the 87,000 who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China; the 160,000 who lost their lives in Haiti from an earthquake in 2010; and the 8,000 fatalities that occurred in the 2015 Nepalese earthquake. Even in the U.S., Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused more than 1,800 fatalities, making it the third-most deadly such storm in U.S. history.

In our book “The Ostrich Paradox,” we explore six reasons that individuals, communities and institutions often under-invest in protection against low-probability, high consequence events. They are:

  1. Myopia: a tendency to focus on overly short future time horizons when appraising immediate costs and the potential benefits of protective investments;
  2. Amnesia: a tendency to forget too quickly the lessons of past disasters;
  3. Optimism: a tendency to underestimate the likelihood that losses will occur from future hazards;
  4. Inertia: a tendency to maintain the status quo or adopt a default option when there is uncertainty about the potential benefits of investing in alternative protective measures;
  5. Simplification: a tendency to selectively attend to only a subset of the relevant factors to consider when making choices involving risk; and
  6. Herding: a tendency to base choices on the observed actions of others.

What can you do differently next time?

We need to recognize that, when making decisions, our biases are part of our cognitive DNA. While we may not be able to alter our cognitive wiring, we may be able to improve preparedness by recognising these specific biases and designing strategies that anticipate them.

Paul Laughlin
Client Experience
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Paul is the founder of Laughlin Consultancy, a business that enables companies to maximize the value of their customer insight. This includes growing their bottom line, improv ... Click for full bio

Alternative Beta Strategies: Alpha/Beta Separation Comes to Hedge Funds

Alternative Beta Strategies: Alpha/Beta Separation Comes to Hedge Funds

Written by: Yazann Romahi, Chief Investment Officer of Quantitative Beta Strategies, J.P. Morgan Asset Management

A quiet revolution is taking place in the alternatives world. The idea of alpha/beta separation has finally made its way from traditional to alternative investing. This development brings with it a more transparent, liquid and cost-effective approach to accessing the “alternative beta” component of hedge fund return and a new means for benchmarking hedge fund managers.

The good news for investors is that the separation of hedge fund return into its components—rules-based alternative beta and active manager alpha—has the potential to shift investing as we know it. These advancements could democratize hedge funds and, at long last, make what are essentially hedge fund strategies available to all investors—even those who aren’t willing to hand over the hefty fees often associated with hedge fund investing.

A benchmark for alternatives

With respect to traditional equity investing, we have long accepted the idea that there is a market return, or beta—but this hasn’t always been the case. Investors used to assume that to make money in the stock markets, one needed to buy the right stocks and avoid the wrong ones. The idea of a market return independent of skilled stock selection seemed ridiculous to most market participants. Yet today, we would never invest in an active manager’s strategy without benchmarking it against its respective beta.

Interestingly, hedge fund managers have been held to a different standard. Investors have been much more willing to accept the notion that hedge fund strategy returns are pure alpha, and that their investment returns are based entirely on the skill of the fund manager. That notion explains why investors have been willing to accept a “two and twenty” fee structure just to access what has been perceived as one of the most sophisticated and powerful investment vehicles available.

In thinking about the concept of beta, consider its precise definition—the return achievable by taking on a systematic exposure to an economically compensated risk. In traditional long only equity investing, the traditional market beta has been further refined as a number of other risks have been identified that are commonly referred to as “strategic beta.” These include factors such as value, momentum, quality and size. But no one ever said that these risk factors must be long-only.

Over the past decade, as more hedge fund data became available, academics began to disaggregate hedge fund return into two components: compensation for a systematic exposure to a long/short type of risk (alternative beta), and an unexplained “manager alpha.” What they found is that a significant portion of hedge fund return can be attributed to alternative beta. That fact has turned the tables on how we look at hedge fund return. With the introduction of the alternative beta concept, hedge fund managers will have to state their results, not just in terms of total return, but also as excess return over an alternative beta benchmark.

Merger arbitrage—an alternative beta example

The merger arbitrage hedge fund style can be used to illustrate the alternative beta concept. In the case of merger arbitrage, the beta strategy would be the systematic process of going long every target company, while shorting its acquirer. There is an inherent return to this strategy because the target stock price typically does not immediately rise to the offer price upon the deal’s announcement. This creates an opportunity to purchase the stock at a discount prior to the deal’s completion. The premium that remains is compensation to the investor for bearing the risk that the deal may fail.

Active merger arbitrage managers can add value by choosing to invest in some deals while avoiding others. Therefore, their benchmark should be the “enter every deal” strategy, not cash. In fact, the beta strategy explains the majority of the return to the average merger arbitrage hedge fund. And it doesn’t stop there. Other hedge fund styles that can be explained using alternative beta include equity long/short, global macro, and event driven. Note that the beta strategy invests in the same securities, using the same long/short techniques as the hedge fund strategy. The difference is that the beta strategy is a rules-based version that can become the benchmark for the hedge fund strategy. After all, if a hedge fund strategy cannot beat its respective rules-based benchmark (net of fees), an investor may be wiser to stick to the beta strategy.

Implications for investors

What does all this mean for the end investor? Hedge funds have traditionally been the domain of sophisticated investors willing to pay high fees and sacrifice liquidity. Alpha/beta separation in the hedge fund world means that investors can finally choose whether to buy the active version of the hedge fund strategy or opt for the passive (beta) version. Hedge fund strategies can be effective portfolio diversifiers. Now, through alternative beta, virtually all investors can access what are essentially hedge fund strategies in a low cost, liquid, and fully transparent form. For investors who haven’t had prior access to hedge funds, this could be welcome news. Not only can investors look at an active hedge fund manager’s strategy and determine how it has done compared to the systematic beta equivalent, they can also invest in ETFs that encapsulate these systematic strategies.

When looking at one’s traditional balanced portfolio today, there are plenty of questions around whether the fixed income portion will achieve the same level of diversification it has provided in the past. After all, with yields still low, there is little income return. Additionally, the capital gains that came from interest rate declines are likely to reverse. With fixed income unlikely to adequately fulfill its traditional role in portfolios, there is a need to find an alternative source of diversification. This is where alternative strategies may help. For investors seeking to access diversifying strategies in liquid and low-cost vehicles, alternative beta strategies in ETF form are one option.

Looking for an alternative to enhance diversification in your portfolio?

For investors looking to further diversify their overall portfolio, JPMorgan Diversified Alternatives ETF (JPHF) seeks to increase diversification and reduce overall portfolio volatility through direct, diversified exposure to hedge fund strategies using a bottom-up, rules-based approach.

Learn more about JPHF and J.P. Morgan’s suite of ETFs here


Call 1-844-4JPM-ETF or visit www.jpmorganetfs.com to obtain a prospectus. Carefully consider the investment objectives and risks as well as charges and expenses of the ETF before investing. The summary and full prospectuses contain this and other information about the ETF. Read them carefully before investing.
J.P. Morgan Asset Management
Empowering Better Decisions
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See how ETFs differ from other investment vehicles, learn how to evaluate them, and discover how ETFs can be used effectively to achieve a diversity of investment strategies. ... Click for full bio