Reputational Risk

Under Siege

Driven by social media, political wars spill over into the corporate arena, threatening reputations.
By: | May 2, 2017 • 12 min read

On Jan. 28, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called a strike at John F. Kennedy International Airport, one day after President Trump signed an executive order banning entry of foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, including a blanket ban on refugees. The strike was an act of solidarity with immigrants, and a public display of the Alliance’s opposition to the executive order.

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Uber, however, continued to service the airport, tweeting that it would halt surge pricing during the protests. Some saw it as an opportunistic ploy to get more riders to use Uber. A #deleteUber Twitter campaign was quickly born, with users tweeting screen shots of themselves removing the app from their smartphones.

More than 200,000 were estimated to have uninstalled the ride-sharing service over the course of the weekend.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick reacted, creating a $3 million legal defense fund to provide lawyers and immigration experts for any of its drivers that were barred from the U.S., and promising that drivers would be compensated for lost wages.

Over the same weekend, in response to the travel ban, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would hire 10,000 refugees worldwide over the next five years. Then it was Starbucks turn to get punished in the public arena. A #boycottStarbucks campaign was launched by people who felt the company should focus more on hiring American veterans.

Athletic shoemaker New Balance suffered blowback in November of 2016 when its vice president of communications, Matt LeBretton, told the “Wall Street Journal” in an interview that he believed “things are going to move in the right direction” under the new administration. Angry customers began posting pictures of themselves trashing or even burning their New Balance sneakers.

These social media-fueled public relations crises demonstrate how fickle public opinion can be. They also serve as warning signs of growing reputational risk for corporations.

Uber, for example, typically stops its surge pricing in the event of emergency so as not to exploit a crisis for its own benefit. To do so during the protests and taxi strike at JFK was perhaps meant to show its respect for the event.

Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

Starbucks’ 10,000 refugee hires would be spread out across its locations around the globe, not just in the U.S., where the coffee conglomerate already promised to hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses by 2025.

New Balance’s LeBretton was speaking specifically about the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his interview, and how the deal could hurt sneaker production in the U.S. while favoring foreign producers — he wasn’t talking about Trump’s other proposed plans.

These companies, in reality, did nothing as abhorrent and scandalous as the Twitterverse may have led some to believe, but context isn’t always provided in 140 characters.

Public Pressure

Complaints and boycotts have been launched at companies via social media for perhaps as long as social media has existed. But the current contentious environment created by one of the most divisive leaders in American history now colors every public statement made by prominent business leaders with a political tint. Executives are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re exposed to reputational damage whether they oppose or endorse a Trump action, or even if they do nothing at all.

Take Elon Musk, for example, founder of Tesla and SpaceX and a well-known advocate for climate research and environmental protection. He came under fire for not publicly denouncing the travel ban and for keeping his seat on Trump’s business advisory council.

Musk has largely avoided the limelight on political issues, couching statements when he makes them at all — as most executives are wont to do. But he was prodded to defend himself on Twitter after some users suggested he was a hypocrite.

“Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” —Helen Chue, global risk manager, Facebook

A strategy of avoidance may no longer work as consumers, employees and the public at large pressure companies to make a statement or take action in response to political events.

“A large segment of the population expects the people they do business with and the companies they buy from to support their point of view or respond to political or social issues in a certain way,” said Chrystina M. Howard, senior vice president, strategic risk consulting, Willis Towers Watson.

In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t environment, reputation risk is expanding, and risk managers need to re-evaluate how they assess their exposure and build mitigation strategies.

A True Crisis?

The challenge begins with determining whether a negative public relations event is really a crisis. Is it a temporary blow to a brand, or does it have the potential to do long-term reputation damage? Misreading the signs could lead companies to overreact and further tarnish their image.

“These sudden public relations crises are a source of panic for companies, but sometimes it sounds much worse than it actually is. The financial ramifications may not be anywhere near what was feared,” Howard said.

“Uber is probably a good example of what not to do,” said Jeff Cartwright, director of communications at Morning Consult, a brand and political intelligence firm.

“They maybe went over the top in trying to reverse the way they handled the protests at JFK.”

Tracking brand value in real time can give risk managers insight into the true impact of a negative social media campaign or bad press.  Michael Ramlet, CEO and co-founder of Morning Consult, said most events don’t damage brands as much as trending hashtags make it appear.

Morning Consult’s proprietary brand tracking tool allows companies to measure their brand perception against influencing events like a spike of Twitter mentions and news stories. More often than not, overall brand loyalty remains on par with industry averages.

In Uber’s case, Twitter mentions spiked to roughly 8,800 on Jan. 29, up from about 1,000 the day before. By Jan. 31, though, the number was back down to around 1,250 and quickly settled back down to its average numbers. From the beginning of the #deleteUber campaign through the end of February, Uber’s favorability shrunk from 50 percent to roughly 40 percent, based on a series of polls taken by 18,908 respondents.

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It’s a significant dip, but likely not a permanent stain on the company’s reputation, especially after Kalanick’s public show of support for immigrants and rejection of the travel ban. Uber’s favorability rating remained higher than competitor Lyft’s throughout the ordeal.

“The #deleteUber campaign turned out to be a very local thing that didn’t have a widespread impact,” Ramlet said.

“Twitter at best is an imputed analysis of what people are saying. The vocal minority might be very active, but there might be a silent majority who still think fondly of a brand, or at least have no negative opinions of it.”

He said risk managers can also benefit by breaking down their brand perception into geographic and demographic subsets. It can, for example, show whether a brand is favored more heavily by Democrats or Republicans.

“If you have that data on day one, it can help you determine how to respond if, say, Trump tweets at you,” Ramlet said.

Of course, some spikes in news media and social media attention are indicative of much deeper problems and true reputational risk.

After the Wells Fargo dummy-account scandal broke, for example, unfavorability ratings as measured by Morning Consult jumped from roughly 20 percent to nearly 55 percent, while favorability dropped from 50 percent to 30 percent. Net favorability, which stood at 33 percent pre-scandal, fell to -4 percent post-scandal.

“They went from being the most popular bank to the least popular in less than four months, according to our data,” Ramlet said.

The contrast between Uber’s and Wells Fargo’s stories demonstrates the difference between a more surface-level public-relations event that temporarily hurts brand image, and a true reputation event.

“Failures that produce real and lasting damage to reputation include failures of ethics, innovation, safety, security, quality and sustainability,” said Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re.

“Activists make a lot of noise that can be channeled through various media, but for the most part in the business world, stakeholders are interested in the goods and services a company offers, not in their political or social views. As long as you can meet stakeholder expectations, you avoid long-term reputational damage.”

Wells Fargo’s scandal involved a violation of ethics, sparked an SEC investigation and forced the resignation of its CEO, John Stumpf. It’s safe to say stakeholders were severely disappointed.

That’s not to say, however, that a tarnished brand name doesn’t also impact the bottom line.

“Even if a bad event is short-lived, the equity markets react quickly, so there may be sharp equity dips. There may be some economic impact even over the short term,” Kossovsky said, “because sharp dips are dog whistles for activists, litigators and corporate raiders.”

Social Media Machine

The root of reputation risk’s tightening grip lies in the politicizing of business, and consumers’ increased desire to buy from companies that share their values. Social media may not be driving that trend, but it acts as a vehicle for it.

“Social media has really changed the game in terms of brand equity, and has given people another way to choose who they give their money to,” Howard of Willis Towers Watson said.

Platforms like Twitter make it easier for consumers to directly reach out to big companies and allow news to travel at warp speed.

“Social media are communication channels that can take a story and make it widely available. In that regard, the media risk is no different than that posed by a newspaper or radio channel,” Kossovsky said.

“The difference today that changes the strategy for risk managers and boards is that social media has been weaponized: Stories shared on social media don’t necessarily have to contain truthful content, and there’s not always an obvious difference between what’s true and what’s not.”

Helen Chue, Facebook’s global risk manager, agreed.

“More influential than social media platforms is today’s culture of immediacy and headlines. Because we are inundated with information from so many sources, we scan the headlines, form our opinions and go from there,” she said.

“It’s dangerous to draw conclusions without taking a balanced approach, but who has the time and patience to sift through all the different viewpoints?”

An environment of political divisiveness, driven by speed and immediacy of social media, creates the risk that false or half-true stories are disseminated before companies have a chance to clarify. This is what happened to Uber and New Balance.

“It creates the opportunity to turn a non-problem into a problem,” Kossovksy said.

“That’s how social media changes the calculus of risk management.”

Risk Mitigation

The best way to battle both political pressure and social media’s speed is through an ironclad communication strategy; a process that risk managers can lead.

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“Risk managers play a crucial role in mitigating reputation risk,” Howard said.

“They bring with them the discipline of managing and monitoring a risk, having a plan and responding to crisis. Now they really have to partner with communications, marketing and PR.”

They also have to get the attention of their board of directors.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk.” — Nir Kossovksy, CEO of Steel City Re

“This is both a company-wide risk and personal leadership risk, so the board needs to drive a company-wide policy that protects the board as well,” Kossovsky said.

The art of mitigating reputation risk, he said, comes down to managing expectations. Corporate communications should clearly convey what a company believes and what it does not believe; what it can do and what it can’t do. And those stated values need to align with the operational reality. It comes down to creating credibility and legitimacy.

“If you let a gap form between what you say and what you do, that gap is the definition of reputation risk,” he said. A strong communication strategy can prevent adverse events from turning into reputational threats.

Willis Towers Watson helps clients test their strategies through a table-top exercise in which they have to respond to a social media-driven reputation event.

“We’ll say, ‘Something happened with X product, and now everyone’s on Twitter lambasting you and calling for resignations, etc.’ What do you do on day one? What do you do a week out? How long do you continue to monitor it and keep it on your radar?” Howard said.

“If you have that plan in place, you can fine-tune it going forward as circumstances change.”

Sometimes, though, the communication strategy fails, and a company falls short of meeting stakeholders’ expectations. Now it’s time for crisis management.

“Volatility creates vulnerability. If you stumble on your corporate message, it creates an opportunity for activists, litigators and corporate raiders to exploit. So you need to have authoritative third parties who can attest to your credibility and affirm the truth of the situation to open-minded stakeholders,” Kossovsky said.

Owning up to any mistakes, reaffirming the truth and being as transparent as possible will be key in any response plan.

Insuring the Risk

Recouping dollars lost from reputation damage requires a blend of mathematics with a little magic. While some traditional products are available, reputation risk is, for the most part, an intangible and uninsurable risk.

“Many companies have leveraged their captive insurance companies in the absence of traditional reputation products in the marketplace,” said Derrick Easton, managing director, alternative risk transfer solutions practice, Willis Towers Watson.

“It goes back to measuring a loss that can include lost revenue, or increased costs. Some companies build indexes in the same way we might create an index for a weather product, using rainfall or wind speed. For reputation, we might use stock price or a more refined index,” he said.

“If we can measure a potential loss, we can build a financing structure.”

While there’s no clear-cut way to measure losses from reputation damage, “stock performance and reported sales changes are some of the best tools we have,” Howard said.

Some insurers, including Allianz and Tokiomarine Kiln, and Steel City Re, an MGA, do offer reputation policies. When these fit a company’s needs, they have the ancillary benefit of affirming quality of governance and sending a signal that the insured is prepared to defend itself.

“Because reputation assurance is only available to companies that have demonstrated sound governance processes, it helps to convince people that if a bad piece of news happens, it’s idiosyncratic; it doesn’t reflect what the company really stands for,” Kossovsky of Steel City Re said.

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“And it tells activists, broadly defined, not to look for low-hanging fruit here.”

In a volatile political environment, companies fare best when they simply tell the truth.

“The American public will accept an apology if delivered quickly and if it’s sincere,” said Stephen Greyser, Richard P. Chapman professor (marketing/communications) emeritus, of the Harvard Business School.

“Tell the truth. Don’t stonewall. A bad social media campaign can be an embarrassment, but if you stick to the facts and apologize when you need to, people forget about the bad quickly.”

“Reputation is the crown jewel,” Chue said. “Given the power of social media’s reach, one individual can have a tsunami-like influence. And it can happen when you least expect it, and it will probably be something you thought was innocuous or even positive that sets off a maelstrom.

“Plan for the worst-case scenario. Be proactive in your plans to mitigate the aftermath and how to communicate. Own up to error. Be transparent. Salvage your crown jewel.” &

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She 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]