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The Venus and Mars of Actuaries and Underwriters

By Clive Riddle

For many of us, what goes on behind the closed doors of actuarial and underwriting offices, if not the stuff of Tom Clancy novels, is still a bit mysterious. Many of us in fact confuse the two functions, thinking that they are interchangeable terms to be applied within an organization, when in fact, they are not. In this month's Predictive Modeling News, editor Russell Jackson interviews actuary Joseph N. Romano ASA MAAA, and underwriter James A. Minnich, discussing what Russell refers to as " the Martian and Venusian aspects of each side.”’

Russell cited a recent predictive modeling conference presentation the two, representing Ingenix, had given where they addressed the “stereotypical extremes of actuaries and underwriters. Here are characteristics of the stereotypical actuary: conservative, analytically accurate and precision-seeking, medium- to long-term focus, action-oriented, but with limited urgency, financially results-oriented and biased, program-oriented, a shy, quiet numbers person with some people skills. Here, on the other hand, are characteristics of a stereotypical underwriter: moderate to conservative, analytically accurate but flexible, short- to medium-term focus, responsive and oriented to fast-paced action, balances financials with growth, customer-oriented, an approachable “people person” with good conversation skills. The best actuaries and the best underwriters, the two said, understand those extremes and have a little bit of both in their approach.”   
Russell asked the two point blank,  what is the difference between what actuaries do and what underwriters do?. Joe Romano the actuary responded "There are a lot of different ways to describe the roles, of course, especially around pricing. That’s where the two disciplines -- actuary and underwriting -- intersect, interact and overlap. Actuary also does reserving and other peripheral activities, but the primary interaction is on pricing. I would argue that an easy definition is that actuary tends to look at macro activity, at issues in the aggregate. Underwriting, on the other hand, while staying aware of that aggregate, works more with the specifics, with a particular group, for example." Jim Minnich the underwriter added "I’d also use that 'micro' and 'macro' distinction. Also, I’d add that actuary is responsible for coming up with the revenue you need on a per-member-per-month basis, on average, for a set of benefits. The underwriter does the analysis on a group-by-group basis, to do a risk assessment to determine if the group is average, healthy or sick. Underwriting starts with the average revenue needed, then the underwriter adjusts it to the particulars of the group. There’s another dynamic at play, too. None of this happens in a vacuum, so the 'best practice' is where they’re linked together -- actuary, underwriting and sales. What if the PMPM rate is consistently too high to be supported by the market? We need to make sure we get enough revenue, but we have to strike a balance between profit and growth. Sales is focused on growth, while underwriting and actuary focus more on the profit piece."

This led Russell to ask them, is there a difference between medical and financial underwriting? Romano replied "There is, indeed. A medical underwriter traditionally is someone who reviews individual health insurance applications, which typically include health questionnaires. So medical underwriting looks at the presence or absence of diabetes, cancer and other chronic conditions to determine the medical health status of the applicant. The financial underwriter, by comparison, works on smaller groups with the other underwriters, but is much more similar in actual function to an actuary, using algebraic calculations to determine the rate needs for a particular group."

Russell Jackson comments that "It doesn’t sound exactly like one is from Mars and the other from Venus, to borrow from the book title, but it sounds like personality types could contribute to a disconnect between actuaries and underwriters." He then asks if  there any way to account for that in staffing, or in setting up communications processes between them?  

Romano tells Russell that "part of what attracts people to the different professions, absolutely, is differences in personality traits. Both disciplines are math-oriented, of course, but while the typical actuary is a math major, an underwriter may be a math major, but we also find folks with a lot broader backgrounds in underwriting because those professionals need a math bent but other skill sets as well. It gets into the different scopes of training the two disciplines undergo; for example, the actuarial profession has a formal examination schedule. The point is, if you have the wrong kinds of interactions between the stereotypes of actuaries and underwriters, you can have problems. But when you get the right kinds, when you get the interactions of people who recognize the stereotypes but who really understand each other’s disciplines, you have the best possible scenario -- the underwriter who understands the actuary’s introversion or the sales agent who understands math. That’s the ideal interaction of the disciplines, and that starts with the interaction of the individual actuaries and underwriters themselves."

Minnich weighed in as well. "I was trained in the early 1980’s at an insurer, and I was surprised that, in that office, we had 50 underwriters, but only five or so of them had math backgrounds. Mine, in fact, is in theology, and I once taught religion to high school students. In other words, you find a wide variety of backgrounds in underwriting, but it’s rare to find an actuary who doesn’t have a math background. Of course, there are stereotypes, too. Are all actuaries very analytical and introverted? Are all underwriters a little less extroverted than sales agents and a little less technically adept than actuaries? Are all sales agents very extroverted with very limited math aptitude?"

Russell also asked how valuable is a formal education program to train each discipline about the other and about respecting the differences between them?  Romano responded that "The Society of Actuaries’ educational processes continually evolve, and we’re trying to get more than math major personalities in terms of thought processes, more of a business orientation; in fact, we talk about the same issues for actuarial and for predictive modeling audiences. There’s great interest in people understanding how they work together. A challenge for better integration of actuary and underwriting, though, is the fact that, while underwriters attend educational forums as well, I don’t know that we have a formal approach to learning each other’s discipline. We have opportunities for that kind of education, but I don’t know that you’ll see it formalized. Rather, that integration is really going to result from the dynamics of people working together and sharing information."

Minnich tells Russell that "My background is in underwriting, so I’m aware of something of an unspoken dynamic; unspoken but worth knowing about. In a traditional insurance company 25 years ago, the actuary held a role that was higher than the underwriter’s. In many cases, the actuary was responsible for coming up with what was needed as far as averages, but also for the formulas the underwriters would be expected to use to go from the average to a community rate for a particular group. It was very clear that, stature-wise, the actuary was much higher. In fact, there are still actuaries working with clients who don’t like to turn the case over to underwriting because everyone knows that “an actuary can underwrite, but an underwriter can’t actuary.” That dynamic is certainly changing, but there’s still some underlying tension out there. What’s changing it? With the advent of HMOs, you see smaller, regional plans that, because of their size, couldn’t afford to hire an actuary. So they’d look to the underwriter on staff to do the traditional actuarial duties and hire an outside firm for consulting actuarial functions. Now, at the huge insurance companies, which have huge actuarial staffs, some of the more stereotypical actuaries still exist. If that person is one of, say 30, actuaries, he or she may not ever have to interact directly with underwriting or sales. But in the smaller plans that have cropped up, if you’re the only actuary, you don’t have that luxury. The good news for all of us is it’s the actuaries who have personalities closer to underwriters and sales agents who will advance. Likewise, it’s the underwriters who are analytical who will succeed."

For More Information:

Predictive Modeling News

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