“Is He Economically Rational?”

At AIG in the early ’90s on the life side, some of the actuaries had a phrase “economically rational.”  When a new person would come into some position of power that we had never dealt with before, we would ask others who knew him better, “Is he economically rational?”  (“He” applies to females as well as males.)

Now economically rational could mean two things:

  • He is economically rational for the company, and thinks like an owner.
  • He is economically rational for himself, and thinks like a worker.

When we/I used the phrase, we meant the former, not the latter.  It implies a very different standard of behavior than merely trying to get the best for yourself — you are trying to faithfully serve the company that employs you.

Insurance is the most complex industry in accounting terms.  In simple terms, that is because when a sale is made, you have little idea what the “cost of goods sold” is.  The cost varies in time and severity.  That complexity meant that there were a lot more games that could be played with the accounting, and the games could go on for a long time.

If you were out for the good of the company, you would aim for organic growth where it made sense, but close down lines of business where it did not make sense.  Now, when you are trying to close down another person’s line of business because it does not earn enough, you might run into some opposition.  And so I did, several times on flawed business that had been, and was being written by the domestic life companies.

It may seem lousy to shut businesses down, but when the underwriting is losing large amounts of money, it is a mercy to the company and its shareholders.

I have known many people in insurance that talk a good game, but in reality, they aren’t doing much.  They may play with the accounting to make things look good.  They may cram sales out the door in the short run, but the quality is bad.  They may boast of big sales in the past, but they don’t deliver when you hire them.  They claim to be a good claims manager, and they settle a lot of claims, but then you find that all the tough cases are stagnating in their bottom left hand drawer.

But the worst is when it reaches to a CFO or a CEO.  The Peter Principle propelled him into office, and the CFO manipulates the earnings, or the CEO takes actions to make it look like he is doing something, when it is not adding to value.  Worse is when the incentives are misaligned, and they sacrifice real profitability to meet incentive targets.

That’s why I believe that pay incentives should be based on growth in book value plus dividends over 3-5 years, with book value being “old style” book, not taking in market value elements.  It has to be long enough to take in a full economic cycle.

Now the phrase “economically rational” does have utility in this respect — the first definition would mean the same thing for everyone — acting like an owner.  The second definition is every man for himself.

I ran into the same situation at companies I served before and later.  Were financials being managed for the good of the owners, of the good of the leading managers?  Sometimes it was owners, sometimes it was managers, and sometimes it was greedy managers.  I remember being disillusioned when the guy who hired me for my first job had used me to tweak earnings higher (I didn’t get it until a years later).  He had left to start something new.  I never saw him again.

I liked my work most when we were acting like owners.  It forced us to be more creative, and take prudent risks.  On imprudent risks, I remember a boss praising me for not putting the company at risk on floating rate Guaranteed Investment Contracts, when I proved it was too risky.  When several of my competitors failed shortly thereafter, I was vindicated.  But being a good businessman, I called those who would want floating rate GICs but no one was willing to lower their yield demands for the contracts.  They weren’t economically rational, and we abandoned the market.

At another company, a chief actuary who would eventually be shown the door for malfeasance, said to me, “We are losing business to these five companies.  Why can’t the investment department make money like they do!?”

I did heavy due diligence.  It was a perfect question to ask me, because my skills on both sides of the balance sheet were significant.  I came back to him and said, “Four of the companies are taking risks far beyond what anyone else in the industry is taking.  In a bear market, they will die.  The last one has a weird holding company structure that allows them to lever up more.  If you want the ask [the parent company] for a similar deal.

Within one year, two of the competitors died, and my explanation of it put me on Jim Cramer’s radar; he even posted what I wrote. Within three years, another had died, and one merged into another entity.  After seven years, the last merged into another entity.  They all were gone.

So what is the value of all this?  I think of it as training to understand managements — see if they act like owners maximizing long-term profits, or as workers aiming to maximize their pay packets.  You will earn more with companies that think like owners.

Now after all of this, it’s not so much a question of rationality but ethics.  Who will do the right thing for the one he ultimately serves?  Working for those people is a joy, and is beneficial to those that own. Doing right does well for many.