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ja kindlustustegelasi tasub riskide osas kuulata küll

Think the worst - then prepare for it
(Filed: 17/04/2006)

The chief of the world's largest insurance broker tells Andrew Cave about his fears of an infodemic

The world feels increasingly risky to Michael Cherkasky. The chief executive of the world's largest insurance broker, Marsh & McLennan, is convinced that it will be afflicted by a global pandemic within the next decade.

"I have been told by a series of virologists at some of the world's great institutions that a pandemic is something that's likely to occur, just because of the nature of our transportation and communications," he declares. "That's what we have to make sure we prepare for."

Cherkasky, 56, doesn't believe that pandemic will be avian flu but is worried about what he calls an "infodemic".

"Sars," he says, "on a conservative estimate, killed fewer than 1,000 people but cost $40bn. Traditional flu killed 100 times as many people that year.

"Can you imagine what would happen in London if two or three children died from avian flu and it was on the headlines? What do you think the reaction would be, even though we know that every day children die of a different kind of influenza?

"We have to understand that information and sometimes exaggerated information is going to spread very rapidly. And our institutions have to be able to cope with that?"
Cherkasky sees risk everywhere. "Because of the incredible rapidity of communications, the rapidity and cheapness of transportation and information exchange, the just- in-time manufacturing, the outsourcing and offshoring," he cries, "we're interconnected with communities and cultures and societies as never before and the pace of change is phenomenal.

"If there were to be a monetary crisis in Thailand, it would have repercussions in London and New York. If there was a labour strike or disruption in China, it would have implications throughout the globe.

"There's strategic risk in India and China; phenomenal strategic risks for governments, for communities, for business. What are the implications of offshoring to Asia if there is political disruption?

"I hate to say it but because of just-in-time, a single bridge closure across the Canadian-US border for three days after 9/11 started to disrupt car production in the US because parts couldn't move across that bridge; a single bridge.

"There are those kinds of risks today because we're trying to do things efficiently. Our efficiency at times, if we so consolidate things, can be a risk factor in itself."

Gosh! It's a wonder Cherkasky ever goes out of his New York house, let alone jets over to London to oversee Marsh & McLennan's 8,000 UK staff. Doesn't he worry about all this stuff?

He laughs. "You know, the advice that I give clients, I take myself," he confides. "Three million people died last year from smoking. 250,000 people worldwide died from automobile accidents. Less than 5,000 people in the last five years have died from terrorism, excluding Iraq.

"My advice is get in your car, do up your seatbelt, don't smoke and go about your business because that's really all you can do.

"Do I in my briefcase carry a flashlight? Do I carry certain pills? I do. Do I account to my children about certain aspects of travel? I do. Do I have a service that provides me with travel updates on my blackberry, an alerting system? I do. I feed in my itinerary and if there are any warnings, ranging from a spike in crime to a labour unrest situation or an intense weather story where I'm going to be travelling, it gives me an alert.

"At home, do I have a backup generator? I do but, having said that, overwhelmingly I go about and live my life." What did his gadget warn him about when coming to London? "The only thing was there were some air traffic issues in France." Did it make him feel safe? "It did," he laughs. "I take the trains, I take the Tube. I went for a run this morning. I felt fine."

Well that's a relief. Of course, Cherkasky feels that Marsh & McLennan, spanning the Marsh insurance brokerage, reinsurance specialists Guy Carpenter, reinsurance broker, human resources consultancy Mercer, money manager Putnam Investments and corporate investigators Kroll, is best-placed to advise the world's corporations how to deal with all this risk.

"We can help companies assess, quantify, and mitigate these risks and if need be we can help transfer those risks by using insurance," he says. "There's no company that can do all the things we can do.

"From A to Z, we're the company that can best react to crisis and we can also help you prepare for that crisis, whether it be avian flu, or the next terrible global warming event or something that's extraordinary like terrorism."

"The well-run company understands that they have worked hard for what they have and now they have to plan to keep it by doing all kinds of contingency planning. Something's gonna happen.

"Do I think we're going to have all kinds of sub-committees and government meetings saying: 'why weren't we prepared'? I will tell you that as certain as the day follows the night, that's what's going to happen. People will start to scream: 'Why weren't we prepared. Why didn't we see it coming?'

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