A journey into the uncertain: Risk in financial services

Written by Magdalen Wiley on . Posted in Conference Blog

How can statisticians make an impact in the workplace and develop their careers? This question was discussed at the RSS conference at a session titled: 'A journey into the uncertain: Identifying and modelling risk in financial services'.

Ashley Kanter, analytics manager at insurance company, Aviva, talked through his work (in a former role), on the cheery topic of mortality statistics, actuarial science and what skills a statistician can bring to the financial service sector. Insurance companies have the tricky task of calculating when people will die and this is where the expertise of a statistician is vital.  

Mortality is a rich source of uncertainty in itself, so Ashley amended Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote to: 'Nothing is certain but… taxes'. There have been various newspaper headlines telling us that the first person to live to 1,000 may be born already, and while this may not be mainstream opinion, such a thought, says Ashley, is very worrying to insurers.

In some cases, he continues, we can’t even deal with uncertainty even if we wanted to and there are several cases of this. The 21st December is the date that the Mayans thought the world would end but was also when the EU Gender Directive was launched, a controversial piece of legislation which prohibited male and female insurance contracts to be priced differently. Something which is a struggle for statisticians to comprehend given that the risks between the genders vary massively.

Ashley said it took time in his previous role (at another insurer) to explain to some colleagues how statistics could help solve issues within the organisations. He stresses several simple ways in which statisticians can influence and have an impact in the workplace:

  • It is important to emphasise the randomness of observed data. There is often the preconception that we are measuring data; rather, we need to stress that we use statistics to estimate rather than measure
  • Use the coin tossing analogy – a statistician’s best friend for explaining probability
  • Limit the use of jargon
  • Capture uncertainty of the assumption by specifying a distribution with confidence intervals rather than a single value
  • Take special care when using particular words, eg 'discriminate' may sound good to a statistician but it doesn’t to the outside world.

Ashley concluded that 'uncertainty lurks around every corner', many are spooked by it but that is why statisticians have such a crucial role in providing a logical solution to the many uncertainties faced by business.

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