The global nature of the commercial insurance business is quickly becoming the new normal for our industry. As business leaders in nearly every sector geographically diversify their risk, the emerging opportunities for our business multiply.
In recent years our members have continued to identify the strongest emerging markets to be Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America, especially Brazil. In these parts of the world, understanding the business of insurance and the critical role it plays in economic development can sometimes be difficult for political leaders and, in some places, even culturally offensive. Breaking these barriers is challenging, but the industry can now enlist a powerful institution, the World Bank, to help our efforts.
The World Bank now strives to get leaders in underdeveloped economies to realize the importance of building strong risk-management strategies. With its annual World Development Report, “Risk and Opportunity—Managing Risk for Development,” the bank is putting its money where its mouth is. The report underscores the need for developing countries to recognize that improving risk management is synonymous with building new economies and improving living standards. To accomplish those tasks, political leaders in these regions need to enable a robust insurance market.
The World Bank’s new initiative could ease the cultural challenges we face as we wade into uncharted territory. And as more American businesses look to expand globally in pursuit of new revenue sources, it’s a necessary move. According to a report by the accounting firm KPMG, 60% of midsize company executives in the United States said they plan to expand outside the country over the next five years. The report found these middle-market players expect to compete against the largest U.S. companies that have traditionally dominated the international scene.
Those executives, the report showed, have some anxiety over the future of the U.S. economy compared to their prospects for finding new revenue overseas. Among the middle-market CEOs, there is a growing consensus that their companies’ success will be tied directly to their geographic diversity. Executives from large international insurance carriers also regularly point to the new frontier of emerging markets, the increased trends of direct foreign investments and the demand for brokers who understand the regions.
World Bank president Jim Yong Kim sees these signs as a big opportunity for economies that are typically considered too politically risky for business, and he is aggressively pushing the bank’s new risk-management initiative. Kim says the inability to properly manage risk in these emerging economies leads to more crises and big missed opportunities. He is now focusing efforts on helping developing countries manage risk effectively, and those efforts are central to the World Bank’s mission. The bank is specifically calling for political leaders, individuals and institutions in emerging economies to move away from being what he calls “crisis fighters” to become “proactive and systematic risk managers.” He points to evidence indicating that recognizing and preparing for risk can pay off abundantly.
After the global economic crisis began in 2008, the concept of risk management gained prominence in international development circles, and the bank highlights the links between risk, livelihoods and poverty. The bank also underscores how managing risk can help people get ahead. The report cites data from farmers in Ghana and India who had access to rainfall insurance, noting they were more likely to invest in fertilizer, seeds and other farming expenses rather than saving money to guard against potential future shocks. The investment in their future paid off in dividends.
Two other major elements bolster the bank’s case for instituting strong risk-management strategies—the government austerity measures undertaken by Western countries and the changing climate. As developed countries are simultaneously reducing their international aid budgets, historic weather-related catastrophes are becoming less predictable and more disastrous. Developing countries experiencing new growth can institute risk-management programs that effectively leverage the dwindling charity from overseas while protecting their momentous gains.
The World Bank’s Kim has his job cut out for him. Of course, he doesn’t need to convince anyone reading this column of the importance of risk management to economic development. Council members have struggled for years to penetrate underinsured markets and educate developers, investors and government officials about the real value of our business. It’s a task that my colleague and I undertake on a daily basis on Capitol Hill. (I often find myself using the old line that insurance is the oxygen to the nation’s economy.) But inserting our values into emerging economic infrastructures is a heavy task.
The World Bank can now be added to the list of other international organizations, such as the G-20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Association of Insurance Supervisors, that advocate for sound risk-management strategies. Time will tell whether President Kim’s voice, added to the growing choir of insurance advocates, moves the ball forward in some of the more stubborn parts of the globe.