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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Marking life and death by the numbers

"In my teens in the 1950s, I found that I loved mathematics and had some talent for it, so I made it my first degree subject, although by then deciding I preferred to study history." reports Neil Cameron, Montreal writer and historian. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I also considered for a while becoming an actuary, although without much enthusiasm. I had never so much as heard of it before attending university, and did not much hear about it even there. The most important study that actuarial science required was in probability and statistics, and the single course provided in these in most math departments then was held in low regard by the pure mathematicians, who liked to determine exact proofs, not carry out quantitatively sophisticated guesswork. The only two Canadian universities, Queen’s and Manitoba, that offered full degree programs in the field had trouble staying in existence, since its professors kept leaving for employment by the big insurance companies, which then paid far better than university teaching.

Insurance of all kinds has always depended on making uncertain but reasonably reliable assessments of risk. Applied to ship cargoes, some versions go back to Mediterranean antiquity, but insurance on human beings individually or in groups, began arriving in the 17th century, especially in England and the Netherlands. One of the first systematic tables of mortality, for example, was created by Edmund Halley, Isaac Newton’s colleague, the friend and colleague, who has a comet named after him. Increasing accuracy and professionalization continued over the following two centuries, notably among the Scots, once the main creators of actuaries as they were of chartered accountants. Both of these also had a large influence on the way business and finance have evolved in Canada. It used to be said that the Americans made the money, but the Canadians counted it and sold life insurance to anyone who had any.

I accidentally acquired a front-row seat to how this Canadian way of doing things continued to evolve over the last three decades. In 1980, I started working in my summer vacations for a financial consulting firm called Brendan Wood International. I liked the work, and wound up continuing it, off and on, ever since. My somewhat rusty but functioning background in mathematics and statistics proved useful, and Brendan was an excellent mentor. I also began spending years reading all I could about finance and the securities markets. I learned as well from doing scores of interviews with portfolio managers and analysts at financial institutions.

Hence I gained a new perspective on how the movement of money shaped life in Canada. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, for example, Montrealers in general could observe the massive departure of corporate and financial head offices from Montreal to Toronto, but I got to see it in detail and at close range. I often interviewed financial executives in their new Toronto skyscraper offices as they were still unpacking boxes from their former Montreal headquarters. I learned as well the different habits of trust companies, insurers, investment counsellors, and large self-administered pension funds, all on “the buy side of the street,” and of the ways of their corporate finance, brokerage, trading, and security analysis suppliers on the “sell side.”...

So actuaries are now much in demand; dozens of universities now train them. Like accountants, they have greatly broadened their services, many now identifying themselves as overall “human resources” managers. Actuarial statistics and techniques are spreading into all kinds of risk assessment, almost unnoticed. The public has heard a lot about pensions lately, brought up in debates in the federal election, and with Ontario setting out a new plan in December. But I doubt if many Canadians have ever heard of Mercer or Towers Watson, the two giant actuarial firms, or know much about what actuaries do.

Source: The Prince Arthur Herald

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