General Insurance in AsiaQ&A with Fiona Tang, FSA, corporate actuary and AVP at Swiss Re Asia Pte. Ltd October 2020
The actuarial profession is gaining a lot of attention in Asia, with many young people choosing it as a career. However, there are still significantly fewer actuaries in Asia who are qualified and practicing in general insurance (GI) than in life insurance. This interview with Fiona Tang, FSA, provides a sneak peek into the life of a young non-life actuary in Hong Kong.
How did you develop an interest in actuarial science?
I like mathematics, so when I was choosing a major to study at university, I chose actuarial science because it is related to mathematics and is a profession that is less likely to be affected by general economic conditions. A real interest in actuarial science developed only after I had gone through the stressful university courses and completed most of the exams. That was when I was able to focus on the work and learn more about interesting topics that were beyond the exam syllabus, such as the latest developments in the Asian markets. I also learned more about programming.
Is there enough knowledge of the actuarial career in your part of the world? Specifically, are students made aware of such a career path in schools?
No, I think most people believe actuaries are like accountants who work at insurance companies. The only thing they know about actuaries is that they are good at mathematics. People in other professions are not aware of what actuarial work entails. In Hong Kong, the admissions standards for actuarial science are high, and unless you know someone who is working as an actuary, you do not have much of an idea of what the career is like.
Has being a woman affected your career growth in the actuarial field?
We have talked about gender equality for decades, and there actually are a lot of female actuaries in consulting and reinsurance in Asia. As a female actuary, I do not feel any particular disadvantages at my current level. Sometimes I felt peer pressure on my old team when all of my peers were of the opposite gender, but in general, my managers have been quite fair.
There are different kinds of obstacles one must face in their career, but I personally have not been concerned about gender. I’ve found you can earn recognition for your actual work and climb your way up the career ladder. If that has not been your experience, maybe you need to find a better work environment.
Describe your involvement with the broader actuarial community. Are there barriers for Asian actuaries to volunteer for research and other initiatives in professional bodies in the West?
In the younger actuarial community, we do not have many serious study groups where we discuss actuarial topics. Sometimes we will talk about the latest trends when a few actuaries come together for board games, and believe me, playing board games with actuaries is not easy!
I am still enjoying the break now that I’m done with exams, but in the future, I would like to contribute more to the actuarial community. I would not say there are barriers. Asian markets are growing, and actuaries in Asia have plenty of opportunities to contribute to the local actuarial societies to support the development of regulations. We also can get involved in research from the other professional bodies that are active in the region, like the Society of Actuaries (SOA) or the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA).
What made you choose the GI track instead of the more traditional life and pensions tracks? Were you set on the GI qualification from the start, or did your interest develop later?
At the beginning of my study and career, I wanted to explore different roles in the actuarial world before deciding on a focus area. During my university studies, I did two internships: one in life reinsurance pricing and one in property and casualty (P&C) reinsurance pricing. I started to develop an interest in the P&C business from my internship.
After graduation, I joined a consultancy where I had the opportunity to work on P&C and pension actuarial audits, life pricing, product development and enterprise risk management (ERM) framework assessment—I learned about some different fields and options. Gradually I made up my mind to focus on the P&C area, as there are so many different lines of business and it’s interesting to learn more about them. At that time, I already had completed Fundamentals of Actuarial Practice (FAP), so I continued with the GI track from the SOA and applied what I learned from my studies to my day-to-day job.
What do you find particularly interesting about GI over life or pensions?
I find the wide range of different lines of business and how each of these risks should be assessed particularly interesting—from the short-tailed ones like non-life accident to longer-tailed ones like engineering, and especially the new products such as cyber and parametric insurance. All of these different exposures are quite unique, and apart from the analysis we do, most of the time we also need very good judgment based on our knowledge of and experience with that particular line of business. Also, in Hong Kong, life insurance is relatively well developed and more standardized. On the other hand, GI is smaller and still developing. I am interested in helping to develop this part of the actuarial spectrum.
Do you think students qualifying through the current GI track develop the necessary competencies for working in the industry? What do you think could be improved to make the program more relevant?
I think the topics covered in the syllabus helped me understand the fundamental actuarial concepts in the P&C business. On top of that, I gained country-specific or role-specific knowledge through practical experience and from other experienced actuaries.
Exams can never fully catch up with the latest developments in the world. I think the SOA made a good move to introduce more data analytics components into the exam syllabus, which is necessary for actuaries today. In the future, it would be very useful if the exam format could be more focused on problem-solving using both theoretical concepts and programming skills like R and Python.
How relevant is developing programming skills to a GI actuary—especially with all the focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and data science?
Although regulatory requirements dictate that we use methodologies that can be easily assessed and explained, programming skills are very relevant and useful to automate our daily, repetitive and tedious tasks. This allows actuaries to spend more time on work that adds more value. Also, data science can help us perform better experience analysis and predictions to support our opinions. At Swiss Re, we have a global initiative for actuaries to learn R programming skills, and we have transformed most of our work from Excel to R, which is much more efficient.
What do you think is the role of big data in a GI actuary’s work? What is your experience with it?
Predictive modeling and big data are hot topics for most industries. This computational power allows for the analysis of large amounts of data from various sources, and it uncovers links that can better assess risks and behaviors. GI actuaries can better underwrite and segment their customers as they have access to more personalized data—for example, we see this with GPS data for auto insurance. This predictive power also allows actuaries to develop products like parametric insurance for natural catastrophes, which can help fill the insurance gap.
In Asia, the data quality and quantity are not ideal for conducting data analysis, but the industry is moving in the right direction to be able to gain all of the benefits big data can bring. From my experience, using R and other tools has helped me conduct better analysis with good visualization. Using these tools also has enhanced the efficiency of internal processes, which frees up my time to focus on work that adds more value.
How do you see the role of a GI actuary developing over the next five years?
In Hong Kong, the coming risk-based capital (RBC) requirement will allow GI actuaries to play a more important role in P&C insurance companies. In the coming years, there will be a large part for GI actuaries to participate in natural catastrophe (NatCat) and cyber risks. With the help of data analytics, we will be able to make more accurate predictions of catastrophe. Online insurers will have better data to create more innovative products to improve penetration in Asia. Some GI actuaries will move into non-insurance jobs since their skill set, especially modeling, can be utilized in other industries.
An actuarial career is not all about number crunching, and like everyone else we need to have our hobbies and time to relax as well. What do you do to de-stress and maintain a good work-life balance?
I love painting—especially watercolor—and sketching. It’s so relaxing to find a nice café during the holidays, and all I need is a cup of nice coffee, a pen and paper. While I have to be rational and professional at work, I can set my mind free and express my feelings via painting to de-stress. When I had only one fellowship paper left, I decided to pursue a Western art diploma, and I completed both the FSA and the diploma in the same year! That was really great, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Like most Hong Kongers, I also like to hunt for cheap flight tickets and travel to different places whenever I have time. Spending a weekend in Taiwan is something I want to do when the pandemic is over.
Do you have any advice for an actuarial analyst or student at a fairly early stage their in studies on balancing work and life, and also on how to decide between life and GI?
I advise students to finish their exams as early as possible after graduation, as you will be taking on more responsibilities after a few years and it becomes difficult to balance work, life and study. Setting up a to-do list for study and work is really helpful, as you can focus on tasks to be completed in a day. Do not worry about things that are not under your control or that are not urgent.
I think students can take their time deciding between life and GI. They can try out different roles or do some research on different topics when they are still young to understand more about different fields. I think that is the way to know what you are really interested in—or what does not interest you.
Copyright © 2020 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.