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LTCI Watch: State of the Actuaries

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This past Sunday, I was watching “The Big Short,” a film about the crisis in the mortgage-backed securities market, in a theater a few hundred feet away from a major mortgage-backed securities servicing center.

The heroes of that film, who are based on the stories of real-life people, showed what geniuses they were by figuring out how to short the mortgage-backed securities market.

The movie makes it look as if the pirate traders in that film were the only people who understood that the U.S. mortgage market was going to crash. Of course, that’s not at all true. Many people who were running and watching life insurance companies’ investment portfolios knew very well that the housing market and the mortgage-backed securities market were eventually going to crash.

The only surprise, to anyone paying attention, might have been how much the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) market and the synthetic CDO market magnified the risk. 

Meanwhile, on Jan. 12, President Obama will give a State of the Union address (which, as I wrote this, was is still a few hours away).

The American Academy of Actuaries (AAA) very kindly offered to have some actuaries available to talk about the challenges facing the U.S. health care, long-term care and retirement benefits systems.

I ended up turning down that kind offer, because I knew the AAA representatives would say the obvious, sensible kinds of things they’ve been telling reporters from and predecessor news organizations (example: National Underwriter) since before the panic of 1907.

What I really want to know is: Partisan views aside, does anyone in the White House or Congress who’s really involved with policy pay any attention to AAA advice, or have the basic chart-reading and compound interest understanding abilities to know what the heck the AAA folks are talking about?

As I was watching “The Big Short,” wondering what wise remark I would make if someone asked me what the big current “short” opportunity is, it occurred to me that the obvious answer is to short the dollar and other major world currencies.

See also: Gross says invest in developing world as U.S. population ages

In “The Big Short,” the mortgages in the portfolios backing the mortgage-backed securities turn out to be much more terrible than commonly understood.

The current equivalent (which, to be honest, I’m not sophisticated enough to fully understand) is that the current and anticipated assets in the virtual folders backing U.S. dollars (and the dollars’ various international sisters) are full of bad math.

Paul Krugman might very well be right when he says that running a deficit can help a country out of a terrible depression long enough to do a lot of good, but it seems reasonable to think that this strategy only works if the deficit spending goes into something that has some relationship with whether, for example, the “old old” baby boomers of the future, and the giant population of “old old” millennials that will be creaking along behind the boomers about 30 years later, will have good food and nice houses.

But I was actually watching “The Big Short” in a theater that physically shows how foolish the United States has been investing its resources: Huge portions of U.S. resources still flow into real estate development. A huge amount of the real estate development has been occurring on the bank of the Hudson River in New Jersey, across from New York City. That development is mostly occurring on land that starts to flood after a few hours of rain.

That can’t possibly make any sense.

The AAA is too polite to do something like this, but what I’d love to see — in an alternative universe where the AAA officers all have beards and daggers — is for the AAA to form a panel of Democratic members, a panel of Republican members and a panel of swing voter members.

Have each panel pick its own top AAA recommendation for each federal matter that the AAA comments on. If, for example, the AAA sends one unified proposal on long-term care (LTC) financing to the White House, each panel could designate the same proposal as its top proposal.

Have the AAA record present how often the policymaking or policy shaping body in question shows, in any way, that it’s actually absorbed the top AAA recommendations and, if possible, to indicate how often the body in question shows that it understands the recommendation. Not that it takes the recommendation or agrees with it, just that it understands the recommendation.

And, for extra credit, get every member of Congress and designated members of the Executive Branch to take a test consisting of 20 of the statistics and chart reading test questions that were included in standardized tests for sixth-graders in the three biggest U.S. states in the preceding year.

Start to keep track of how often policymakers and shapers do their best to understand the top AAA recommendations in any given year, and what percentage of national leaders are at least as well equipped to understand the AAA proposals as the average sixth grader.

Maybe the results of that work would give us some useful information about why we end up in some of the messes we get into.

See also:

Principal Agrees To Sell 68-Year-Old Mortgage Unit

Abe sells Japan’s elderly on charms of country life to save economy


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