A little bit of pandemic risk was just the thing

Friday, June 19th, 2020

Analysts at Munich Re realized that a pandemic could overwhelm life insurance companies — and reinsurance companies, too:

To tackle Munich Re’s exposure, Kraut’s team began attempting to quantify and price this incredibly remote, unpredictable risk. If they managed to do that, they would then need to sell part of that risk—to find someone willing to insure the reinsurer. “No one really had tried to do a transaction at a one-in-500-year return period,” Kraut said. His boss gave it a 50–50 chance of success.

But over the course of two years, the group gradually built up a list of potential buyers. It turned out that there were a few large institutional investors looking to diversify their own portfolios, and a little bit of pandemic risk was just the thing. Munich Re would provide them with annual payments, year after year. In the rare event of a pandemic, they would have to cover Munich Re’s losses. One interested class of investor—if a macabre one—was pension funds, which typically grapple with something called longevity risk: the chance that people will live longer than expected.

“It’s not really good terminology to call it a ‘risk,’ ” Kraut said. “It’s a good thing, technically! But if people live a lot longer than expected, then a pension fund needs to pay out a lot more pensions than they originally calculated.” A deadly pandemic that takes the lives of pensioners, to put it in the most clinical terms, means fewer years of pension payouts, canceling some of the longevity risk. Should no pandemic arise, they would pocket payments from Munich Re.

By 2013, Kraut and his team had put together enough investors—starting with a large Australian pension fund—to take some of the pandemic problem off of Munich Re’s books. But he soon encountered an unexpected hitch: The mechanisms written to trigger the deal relied on a series of “pandemic phases” monitored by the World Health Organization. (Phase 1: Virus is circulating in animals. Phase 2: Reports of human infection. Phase 3: Human-to-human transmission. And so on up to Phase 6: Sustained outbreaks in multiple regions.) Sometime in 2013, however, the WHO abandoned this system for a less specific four phases. Kraut suddenly needed some other organization to delineate the stages of epidemics reliably enough to write into an insurance policy. And he needed someone to monitor epidemics closely, to know when they hit agreed upon triggers—illnesses, deaths, spread. “But you can’t just hire the WHO,” he said.

In studying up on the world of epidemiology, Kraut happened to have picked up a book called The Viral Storm. It was written by Nathan Wolfe. Part memoir, part prescription, the book laid out a vision for how to counter the threat that novel viruses represent to humans. Kraut looked up Wolfe and saw that he’d formed a company.


Kraut, however, had an even more ambitious idea in mind. What if, instead of simply hedging its own life insurance business in the case of a pandemic, Munich Re could use the same concept to insure other businesses against them? Business interruption insurance, the policies that protect companies against income losses from disasters like fires or hurricanes, often explicitly excluded disease. (And when it didn’t, insurers could still use the ambiguity to deny claims.) The risk was thought to be too large, too unpredictable to quantify. But Munich Re had already proven it could cover its own life insurance risk in pandemics, and now it had a partner in Metabiota that specialized in seemingly unpredictable outbreaks. What if they could create and sell a business interruption insurance policy that covered epidemics, starting with acutely vulnerable industries like travel and hospitality? They could then pass on the payout risk from those policies to the same types of investors who had bought their life risk.


Where Munich Re’s epidemic solutions division had been struggling to get traction with potential customers, now, in early January, buyers were banging at the door. “That’s just the nature of human psychology,” he said. “Whenever a catastrophe arrives, people immediately want insurance for that catastrophe.” The virus was still confined to China and Kraut faced a grim calculation: Should the company write business interruption policies that would cover SARS-CoV-2, outside of Asia? “You clearly have the human tragedy,” he said. “On the other hand you are in charge of the business unit.” But there were too many warning signs—too much risk for Munich Re. It would have been like selling fire insurance for a house already in flames. Kraut made the decision not to sell.

In a sense, Munich Re had dodged a bullet: Had the company succeeded at selling pandemic protection to corporate giants starting 19 months before, it would have collected almost no premiums and now be paying out on every single one. Kraut acknowledged as much, but offered that if insurers never pay out, “then you lose the reason of existence.”

By March, Metabiota had closed its offices in downtown San Francisco, and its employees joined the legions of new remote workers. “It is painful to see loss of livelihoods, insecurity, fear,” Oppenheim said, “when potentially we would have had tools to prevent that.”

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