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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Spot the actuary!

It was that time of year again, when you check out your fellow passengers on the train/plane and try to guess who is heading your way - sometimes it’s easier than others to "spot the actuary" on their way to the highlight of the Life CPD calendar!

All routes were bound for Amsterdam this year, a year of firsts - the first time for the event to be held outside the UK (why should GIRO have all the fun?); the first time actuaries from outside the UK profession were formally invited (it would be rude not to extend the invitation to the Dutch Actuarial Association) and the first time the number of attendees hit almost 900.

The results of an unofficial survey (we asked a statistically insignificant 20 people or so) appeared to suggest that a weekend in Amsterdam was the ideal way to prepare for a couple of days of heavy duty networking, knowledge-sharing and tricky questioning of vulnerable speakers. Plus, risk management is key these days, so it wouldn’t be prudent for all 900 actuaries to fly on a single Sunday afternoon.

Following a relaxed opening reception on Sunday evening, this year’s Chair of the Organising Committee, Maeve Sherry, welcomed the delegates with a reminder that we’ve come a long way in a year... with reference, of course, to the continuing financial crisis that was inevitably at the forefront of everyone’s mind. No area of the life actuarial community could hope to escape the effects of an almost unprecedented level of turmoil and this has raised, and would continue to raise, new challenges and questions for us all. Recent events have also highlighted how global the economy has become, and that we are not insulated here in the UK from events in the US and elsewhere. (It was also nice to see so many international actuaries among the attendees and speakers - further indication of how "local" the actuarial community has become.)

Joining Maeve with his own very warm welcome was Marco Vet, President of the Dutch Actuarial Association. Marco boasted of having arrived at the venue on his bicycle - how else?! The warm and cosy feeling was short-lived however. Some may say it was irresponsible of the Organising Committee not to apply a health warning to the opening plenary session by Roger Bootle, one of the City’s best-known economists. We knew his message wouldn’t be good, but we didn’t think it would be that bad! The outlook for the global economy is indeed gloomy, but at least Roger admitted that the actions being taken by international governments are the right ones - and expects there’s much more to come. It appears we may need to brace ourselves for things to get much worse before they begin to get better.

There was only one thing for it after that - a swift exit to the venue’s very own Dutch pub, where determined attempts were made to forget everything we’d just heard.

Bright and early the next day, Ronnie Bowie, President of the Faculty of Actuaries, added his own welcome to the (impressively large for the time of morning) audience. Ronnie noted that, notwithstanding the Profession’s efforts to expand into new areas, the life discipline remains key and that it may well be the life discipline which allows us to cross over into broader risk management areas, with Solvency II being an ideal opportunity for us to demonstrate that broader risk management application.

Ronnie then reminded us of the Profession’s three goals - a world class member service organisation, marketing the profession and building constructive relationships with regulatory stakeholders.

The first plenary of the day dealt with Solvency II, from the perspective of those closest to the inner workings of this very large and complex project. Mark Chaplin of Watson Wyatt chaired the panel which included Alberto Corinti (representing the CEA), Ben Carr (representing the European Commission, seconded from the FSA) and Neil Chapman (representing Towers Perrin, but who has been providing the CEA with technical support on Solvency II). The impressive panel were very well placed to provide an interesting insight into the material challenges that are being addressed, the political process and another timely reminder that it’s never too soon to start planning in earnest for an inevitable change - even if it looks like the hurdles to completion are high.

In the period before lunch, there followed the first two of five breakout sessions, when delegates had the opportunity to check out more of the impressive accommodation at the venue. With a choice of 13 topics at most of the concurrent sessions, there was surely something for everyone - with subjects as diverse as Life in China, Use of Gender as a Rating Factor in Insurance, Extreme Events and How Valuable is Liquidity being covered.

Anyone hoping for a sleepy post-lunch session was disappointed. It was impossible not to sit up and take notice when our guest speaker for the professional development plenary, Jim Lawless, took to the stage, especially as this followed a video showing Jim in ever more extreme and unlikely states of physical discomfort during his 12-month period training as a jockey. Jim’s challenge to us was to "tame the tiger", and was convincing in his assertion that no one member of the audience did not have a tiger to tame - or an inner voice that can at times hold them back from achieving their full potential - either in a personal or professional context. Maybe we should include a new Letters page in The Actuary, dedicated to recording the tales of those who have successfully tamed their tiger - those who felt the fear but did it anyway. What better way to inspire the rest of us to follow suit?

With smiles on our faces, we then heard six sales pitches from speakers who tried to entice us to pick them in the "Hot Topics" sessions that followed - the equivalent of the X Factor but without the mentors. With topics that included Longevity under Solvency II, the Norwich Union Estate Attribution, the Global Actuary, Liquidity Premia, ERM, Placing Longevity Risk and the Retail Distribution Review, it wasn’t easy to choose just two topics.

On Monday evening, we were whisked away by coach to Nemo, Amsterdam’s science centre. This was a great venue in which to relax and socialise with our colleagues and friends, and to encourage the release of our inner Einstein (and child!). Rumour has it that some people’s curiosity was piqued to such an extent that a visit to the heart of Amsterdam was the only appropriate way to end the night.

On Tuesday morning, we had three more opportunities to choose between just as diverse a range of topics in the concurrent sessions as on the previous day. Sandwiched between the more technical sessions was another opportunity to boost our professional development skills, with opportunities to brush up on our negotiation and presentation skills, as well as project management and process improvement skills, to name just a few.

After lunch on Tuesday - the last opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, and to try our hand at winning a prize (or grabbing a stray chocolate) from the colourful array of exhibitors - we had the views of one more panel to consider and quiz. Their mission was to tell us how we do, and don’t, meet our stakeholders’ expectations when it comes to reporting results to the market. Brian Purves of PwC kept proceedings in check as Chair, and was joined in the hot seat by Tim Harris (CFO at Aviva Europe), Gordon Aitken (Investment Relations Director at Standard Life) and Bruno Paulson (European Insurance Analyst at Sanford Bernstein).

With the shares of the whole insurance industry taking a battering recently, this was of particular interest to the very large proportion of the audience that gets involved in their company’s reporting of results. It seems that less is more, even if that is difficult to reconcile with the apparent contradictory demand for ever more assurance that there is nothing untoward lurking behind our disclosures. Bruno made a heartfelt plea for more consistency with the banks, clarifying that this was with reference to the format of, rather than the valuations in, their accounts. Perhaps if we can hit the jackpot in terms of focused disclosures, we can return to what we believe are fairer multiples of EV in terms of market capitalisation.

Before coats and bags were grabbed in the exodus to the airport, Nigel Masters added his closing remarks. Nigel pointed out that there can only be an increase in the demand for actuaries outside the UK - particularly with Solvency II on the horizon - and encouraged the audience to consider a change of scenery that is more enduring than the couple of days just spent in Amsterdam! Nigel also asked for feedback from members of the Institute and Faculty as to how the Profession can best serve its members.

A big thank you must of course go to the Organising Committee, the Event Management Division and all of the speakers (including last-minute replacements!) who came together to produce a great programme that must surely deserve the maximum CPD hours available for the event.

As for next year, we’re already looking forward to seeing how Edinburgh has come along since we last visited in 2004 - and it looks like GIRO will have warmed the city up for us first!