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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Top Picks in Asset Allocation

Top Picks in Asset Allocation

Written b: John Bilton, Head of Global Multi-Asset Strategy, Multi-Asset Solutions

As global growth broadens out and the reflation theme gains traction, the outlook brightens for risky assets


Four times a year, our Multi-Asset Solutions team holds a two-day-long Strategy Summit where senior portfolio managers and strategists discuss the economic and market outlook. After a rigorous examination of a wide range of quantitative and qualitative measures and some spirited debate, the team establishes key themes and determines its current views on asset allocation. Those views will be reflected across multi-asset portfolios managed by the team.

From our most recent summit, held in early March, here are key themes and their macro and asset class implications:

Key themes and their implications
 

Asset allocation views


For the first time in seven years, we see growing evidence that we may get a more familiar end to this business cycle. After feeling our way through a brave new world of negative rates and “lower for longer,” we’re dusting off the late-cycle playbook and familiarizing ourselves once again with the old normal. That is not to say that we see an imminent lurch toward the tail end of the cycle and the inevitable events that follow. Crucially, with growth broadening out and policy tightening only glacially, we see a gradual transition to late cycle and a steady rise in yields that, recent price action suggests, should not scare the horses in the equity markets.

If it all sounds a bit too Goldilocks, it’s worth reflecting that, in the end, this is what policymakers are paid to deliver. While there are persistent event risks in Europe and the policies of the Trump administration remain rather fluid, the underlying pace of economic growth is reassuring and the trajectory of U.S. rate hikes is relatively accommodative by any reasonable measure. So even if stock markets, which have performed robustly so far this year, are perhaps due a pause, our conviction is firming that risk asset markets can continue to deliver throughout 2017.

Economic data so far this year have surprised to the upside in both their level and their breadth. Forward-looking indicators suggest that this period of trend-like global growth can persist through 2017, and risks are more skewed to the upside. The U.S. economy’s mid-cycle phase will likely morph toward late cycle during the year, but there are few signs yet of the late-cycle exuberance that tends to precede a recession. This is keeping the Federal Reserve (Fed) rather restrained, and with three rate hikes on the cards for this year and three more in 2018, it remains plausible that this cycle could set records for its length.

Investment implications


Our asset allocation reflects a growing confidence that economic momentum will broaden out further over the year. We increase conviction in our equity overweight (OW), and while equities may be due a period of consolidation, we see stock markets performing well over 2017. We remain OW U.S. and emerging market equity, and increase our OW to Japanese stocks, which have attractive earnings momentum; we also upgrade Asia Pacific ex-Japan equity to OW given the better data from China. European equity, while cheap, is exposed to risks around the French election, so for now we keep our neutral stance. UK stocks are our sole underweight (UW), as we expect support from the weak pound to be increasingly dominated by the economic challenges of Brexit. On balance, diversification broadly across regions is our favored way to reflect an equity OW in today’s more upbeat global environment.

With Fed hikes on the horizon, we are hardening our UW stance on duration, but, to be clear, we think that fears of a sharp rise in yields are wide of the mark. Instead, a grind higher in global yields, roughly in line with forwards, reasonably reflects the gradually shifting policy environment. In these circumstances, we expect credit to outperform duration, and although high valuations across credit markets are prompting a greater tone of caution, we maintain our OW to credit.

For the U.S. dollar, the offsetting forces of rising U.S. rates and better global growth probably leave the greenback range-bound. Event risks in Europe could see the dollar rise modestly in the short term, but repeating the sharp and broad-based rally of 2014-15 looks unlikely. A more stable dollar and trend-like global growth create a benign backdrop for emerging markets and commodities alike, leading us to close our EM debt UW and maintain a neutral on the commodity complex.

Our portfolio reflects a world of better growth that is progressing toward later cycle. The biggest threats to this would be a sharp rise in the dollar or a political crisis in Europe, while a further increase in corporate confidence or bigger-than-expected fiscal stimulus are upside risks. As we move toward a more “normal” late-cycle phase than we dared hope for a year back, fears over excessive policy tightening snuffing out the cycle will grow. But after several years of coaxing the economy back to health, the Fed, in its current form, will be nothing if not measured..

Learn how to effectively allocate your client’s portfolio here.

DISCLOSURE:

This document is a general communication being provided for informational purposes only.  It is educational in nature and not designed to be a recommendation for any specific investment product, strategy, plan feature or other purpose. Any examples used are generic, hypothetical and for illustration purposes only. Prior to making any investment or financial decisions, an investor should seek individualized advice from a personal financial, legal, tax and other professional advisors that take into account all of the particular facts and circumstances of an investor’s own situation. 

J.P. Morgan Asset Management is the marketing name for the asset  management business of JPMorgan Chase & Co and its affiliates worldwide. Copyright 2017 JPMorgan Chase & Co. All rights reserved.
J.P. Morgan Asset Management
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