2016 Most Dangerous Emerging Risks

Fragmented Voice of Authority: Experts Can Speak but Who’s Listening?

Myopic decision-making based on self-selected information sources results in broad-based societal and economic harm.
By: | April 4, 2016 • 6 min read

On Jan. 11, a German-Russian girl alleged she’d been assaulted by a Muslim mob. Her allegations fed into weeks of anti-immigrant hysteria in Germany and tension between Moscow and Berlin before her statements were unveiled as a hoax.

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Fears over Syrian immigrants and Ebola light up our mobile devices as the much broader dangers of E. coli in our food supply and hospital-acquired infections get lost in the digital noise.

Misinformation on the connection between vaccination and autism spreads globally, leading parents around the world to stop inoculating their children. As a result, the measles, thought to be contained, re-emerges as a health threat in California, Germany and elsewhere.

All of these are examples of the fragmentation of the voice of informed authority.  This emerging risk stems from our tendency to self-select information sources, choosing reports that conform with our pre-established notions, rather than trust official statements.

Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

In essence, there are large segments of the population giving more credence to friends’ Facebook posts than to information from the government or some other informed source.

“Because of the way that information is curated and supplied to audiences, people are increasingly curating their own sources of facts, and this changes society’s ability to understand and respond to information. Consequently authoritative information is being distorted based on our own lens,” said Helen Thompson, the director of commercial marketing for Esri.

Thompson pointed to a February extreme weather event in Virginia in which four people were killed as a risk that most people ignore, either because the death toll was “low”, or the risk wasn’t sensational enough.

“Natural disasters slip off the agenda because unless you are directly impacted something you consider equally or more important comes down your curated channel and displaces it,” she said.

“We know that when people are seeking new information, when they perceive a risk of some sort, that they hold onto the first piece of information that makes common sense to them,” said Barbara Reynolds, a senior crisis and risk communications adviser with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Unfortunately, sometimes that piece that they are exposed to and hold onto right away could be incorrect, making it more difficult to share correct information,” she said.

The risk is that stakeholders will underestimate grave threats, magnify less substantial ones, and fail to take appropriate action. And negative information, whether by street corner gossip, or through social media, spreads much faster than accurate information which might not be as dire.

“When we see something that affects us in a negative way, we are more inclined to retweet or rebroadcast that information without trying to understand whether this is an actual fact,” said Emilio Ferrara, a researcher with the Information Sciences Institute & Department of Computer Science at the University of Southern California.

“That is one of the most dangerous consequences,” Ferrara added.

“The fact that this conversation can foster the spread of panic, or even mass hysteria, whereas there is no practical risk involved.”

International Consequences

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Perhaps the most glaring example is the current presidential election cycle in the United States.

An executive with a European reinsurer said he and his colleagues see the tone of political dialogue in the United States as a threat. That the acrimony, extremism and misinformation being expressed in some corners could lead to grave international consequences.

Among members of the Democratic and Republican parties, what’s emerged is a widespread belief that substantial disruption is needed.  That there is something very “wrong,” and that a radical overhaul is in order.

“Our willingness to accept decentralized dissemination of knowledge and reject centralization of knowledge is what’s changed.” —Helen Thompson, director of commercial marketing, Esri

That’s leading to extreme ideas like building a wall between the United States and Mexico or free college student tuition — without calculating the financial cost or the societal impact.

This when the national unemployment rate is at 5 percent, violent crime is down and we have access to better health care than previous generations, said Thompson.

“Our willingness to accept decentralized dissemination of knowledge and reject centralization of knowledge is what’s changed,” she said.

“For whatever reason, there is widespread mistrust of government and the information it shares at the federal, state and local level.”

Technology Holds the Answer

But just as technology, in the form of social media and the internet, are the vehicles for the spread of misinformation and mistrust, experts agree that technology holds the hope of mitigating, not only internet-spread rumors, but real threats such as food supply chain dangers or internet propaganda campaigns of terror organizations.

Barbara Reynolds, senior crisis and risk communications adviser, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Barbara Reynolds, senior crisis and risk communications adviser, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“Yes, we have the fragmentation that you are talking about, that is true,” said Barbara Reynolds, the CDC risk and communications adviser who spent her career at the nexus of communications and social psychology.

“But when I put those parts of my knowledge together, I find that for every negative there is a positive,” she added.

In Reynolds’ view, these online postings, Tweets and “shares” mean that government agencies become less paternalistic.

“For someone in the business of trying to help people make good health decisions, this is an invaluable feedback mechanism for me,” she said.

Whereas before it might take her days or weeks to filter through reactions to CDC statements, now she gets that feedback almost immediately.

“You can’t just put out a recommendation, you have to be able to withstand attacks,” she said. “What’s really important is to be out there first. It has to be repeated and it has to come from more than one source.”

That means dropping the notion that you are the only authority and seeking strength in numbers. Reynolds said her organization now knows to communicate in concert with other health care organizations.

“It’s important for us to work with other authorities who are trusted and bring them into the conversation,” Reynolds said.

USC’s Ferrara said he and his co-researchers are creating algorithms that are capable of learning the characteristics of misinformation campaigns.

“We are seeing promising advances into the realm of detecting — and even predicting when it’s possible — forms of artificial orchestrated campaigns.

And a campaign can be defined as sustained efforts from some party or entity or a group of people to push some information out.”

Ferrara is collaborating with a company in Washington, D.C. on a system to be used by the U.S. Department of Defense to identify and mitigate terroristic propaganda campaigns. He is also working on frameworks for the CDC and other health care authorities.

“Yes, we have the fragmentation that you are talking about, that is true. But when I put those parts of my knowledge together, I find that for every negative there is a positive.” —Barbara Reynolds, senior crisis and risk communication adviser, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Even though the general population might not be focused on food supply chain risks, Thompson’s Esri is working on solutions.

She said her company is working with international organizations to create a unique way to link every farm in the food supply chain to the produce they grow.

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“Now when you say, where did this apple come from and where did this prawn come from, you know its exact origin,” Thompson said.

It’s not only food supply chain risk that can be mitigated in this manner.

Labor law compliance, supply chain concerns over conflict diamonds or “gray market” gold could also be tracked through advanced technology.

“It’s going to require us to exchange information, transfer liability and quantify risk in a different way that’s happened before,” she added.

She said technology improvements and the Internet of Things will also allow for the tracking of every single unit a factory, farm or mine produces. That should provide much greater clarity for companies mitigating or facing a product recall.

“The IOT is going to fundamentally transform the way we monitor compliance and mitigate these classes of major risks,” she said. &

BlackBar

2016’s Most Dangerous Emerging Risks

brokenbridgeThe Fractured Future Infrastructure in disrepair, power grids at risk, rampant misinformation and genetic tinkering — is our world coming apart at the seams?

01b_cover_story_crackCrumbling Infrastructure: Day of Reckoning Our health and economy are increasingly exposed to a long-documented but ignored risk.

01c_cover_story_leadCyber Grid Attack: A Cascading Impact The aggregated impact of a cyber attack on the U.S. power grid causes huge economic losses and upheaval.

01e_cover_story_dnaGene Editing: The Devil’s in the DNA Biotechnology breakthroughs can provide great benefits to society, but the risks can’t be ignored.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]