A Safety Net for Global Capitalism: Inside Munich Re, the World's Risk Center

By Uwe Buse

When natural disasters, like floods in Pakistan or earthquakes in Haiti, strike, Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance company, ends up paying part of the bill. Munich Re offers capitalism a safety net, and no other company is more familiar with life's risks.

Photo Gallery: Insuring the World's Risks Photos
DPA

The low pressure front that brought flooding to the city of Görlitz on Germany's eastern border with Poland developed over the Mediterranean, bypassed the eastern flank of the Alps, headed for Poland and finally came to a stop at the Erzgebirge (Iron Ore Mountains) along the German-Czech border. But Angelika Wirtz wasn't worried yet.

When the rains came and fell along the Neisse River, on ground that was already saturated and on steep hillside, Wirtz began to take notice. The flood reached Görlitz on the evening of August 7, when the river rose four meters (about 13 feet) in the space of three hours. Parts of the city were underwater and a state of emergency was declared throughout the entire district. When Wirtz found out about it, she typed a note into her computer. It wasn't a particularly long note. Wirtz had seen worse.

On the weekend when the flooding reached Görlitz, Pakistan reported more rainfall of apocalyptic dimensions, more than 800 fires were burning in Russia, a storm in Finland had cut off the power supply for 70,000 people, and at least 80 were killed and hundreds were missing following mudslides in China.

Wirtz diligently entered all of this information into her computer on the morning of Aug. 9. She is accustomed to the trials life has in store for human beings. She has been the head of the situation room at Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance company, for 17 years, and in those 17 years she has repeatedly entered data that represent the catastrophes of the day into the company's databases.

An Encyclopedia of Life, Dangers, Justice and Coincidences

The databases include information about disasters that have already taken place as well as those that are just beginning or could occur in the future. They include data on every earthquake and every trembling of the earth's crust, on the height of ocean waves, air and water temperatures, and on the direction and speed of currents. Reports on glacier melting rates in the Himalayas and snowfall in the Arctic and Antarctic are also documented. New knowledge from the fields of nanotechnology, waste incineration, oil production, shipbuilding, reproduction and transplantation medicine is entered into Munich Re's computers. The databases also contain studies by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Chinese Health Ministry and tumor centers in Bavaria, as well as new information on piracy off the coast of Somalia, fluctuations in the European power grid and the worrisome eating habits of the Arab middle class in the Persian Gulf States.

An endless supply of data, probably unparalleled in its breadth and depth, flows from every continent to a cluster of buildings on the edge of the English Garden in Munich. An encyclopedia of life, its dangers, its injustices, its coincidences, is being assembled there. There is probably no other place on Earth where the risks of the modern world are being studied more intensively and comprehensively than at the headquarters of Munich Re, the world's risk center.

Munich Re insures insurance companies. It takes on risks that are too big for insurance giants like Germany's Allianz or Gothaer. Together with its subsidiaries, the company employs about 47,000 people on all continents, and more than a quarter of the world's population, or about 2 billion people, are indirectly insured through the company. The decisions these people make, the accidents they have, the circumstances of their birth and death, all of this information is transmitted to Munich, where data mining methods are used to examine the information, analyze it and constantly link it to other circumstances. The goal is to find patterns within chaos and probabilities in the improbable.

How great is the risk that a freighter accident in Germany's Midland Canal will cause a power outage in Italy? What might it cost to insure the entire supply chain of an international automobile manufacturer, a total of 4,000 companies scattered across all continents, against every conceivable delivery problem, from strikes to volcanic eruptions? These are the sorts of questions researchers at Munich Re address. Their task is to assess the risks as accurately as possible, because the level of risk determines how often a loss can occur, and the frequency of losses, or claims, determines the amount of the premium. For instance, if a given house is at risk of being flooded by a river once a year, the insurance premium will correspond to the value of the house.

These are the things that matter to Munich Re, whose researchers are ultimately engaged in a seemingly mad attempt to link everything with everything else, eventually, so that the company can then apply the supposedly impossible to the small print of an insurance policy and charge a premium for it. One way to describe this attempt begins with a die on a table. That's the way Heike Trilovszky does it.

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