Dealing with uncertainty: a historical sociology of evaluation practices in UK life insurance, 1971-present
Van der heide, Arjen Wytse
This dissertation examines the evolution of UK life insurance arrangements by investigating how the ways in which life insurers evaluate the economic worth of insurance contracts have changed since the early 1970s. It draws on a set of 44 oral-history interviews, supplemented by an extensive set of documents, to describe how, in addition to traditional forms of ‘diversifiable’ insurance risk, insurers have increasingly sought to quantify forms of ‘non-diversifiable’ risk such as financial market risk. The central question is how changes in insurers’ evaluation practices shaped and were shaped by broader developments in UK life insurance. In addressing this question, the dissertation combines insights from field-theoretical perspectives in ‘conventional’ economic sociology, the recent literature on the performativity of economics, the sociology of insurance and the sociology of scientific knowledge. Field theory is a useful tool for understanding how meso-level social orders emerge as a function of the strategic behaviour of actors in social domains such as markets. The assumption of ‘technological determinism’ prevalent in field-theoretical perspectives, however, conflicts with insights from the sociology of scientific knowledge and recent literature on the performativity of economics. This tension may be alleviated, I argue, by conceptualising both the market for life insurance and actuarial science as fields (a ‘market field’ and an ‘epistemic field’) and by investigating the interrelations between the two. In deploying this field-theoretical perspective, the dissertation finds, on the one hand, that developments in the market field may lead to new opportunities and challenges in the epistemic field. Particularly important in the epistemic field, for instance, was the ascendancy of modern finance theory’s no-arbitrage models as key exemplars for the modelling of insurance liabilities in actuarial science. However, only when the jurisdictional claims of the actuarial profession were threatened and when supervisors required insurers to evaluate their liabilities using techniques already used in banking did these models become dominant in the actuarial field. x On the other hand, I argue that the ways in which life insurers evaluate the economic worth of insurance contracts matters for what life insurance is and does. Evaluations of ‘value’ and ‘risk’ inform decision making about the distribution of financial surplus and risk across different groups of policyholders and shareholders, the types of products that life insurers choose to underwrite, and the way in which they invest their assets in capital markets. Since the 1970s, the emergence of novel evaluation practices has contributed to the individualisation of financial risk in insurance arrangements, a shift in insurers’ asset allocations from equities to fixed-income investments, and a declining willingness from insurers to underwrite traditional mortality-related risks. The business of life insurance, in other words, increasingly revolves around investment intermediation rather than protection. The findings of this dissertation draw attention to the politics of seemingly technical issues such as the discounting of future cash flows to present values. Overall, I suggest that the evolution of UK life insurance can be fully understood only by paying attention to tensions and conflicts in the epistemic field of actuarial science, attempts to influence the ‘rules of the game’ in the market field and the interrelations between the two.
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