This is a guest post by Michael Folkson.
The Internet was originally developed as a network for information exchange. Now, a multitude of entrepreneurs and software developers are building the Internet for value exchange. The next logical progression is to build the Internet for risk exchange.
Just as units of currency can be transferred to a third party, insurance contracts transfer risk exposures to a third party. Blockchain technology has the potential to radically transform how the insurance industry operates and how risk exposures are shared and distributed.
While Bitcoin offers a protocol for peer-to-peer value transmission bypassing the traditional banking system, an insurance industry leveraging a public blockchain presents an opportunity for individuals and entities to retain, share or transfer risk exposures without the requirement for risk exposures to sit on an insurance company’s balance sheet.
Science fiction frequently offers inspiration for what an industry could look like in the future. The short speculative fiction titled "Know When to Hold ’Em" by K.G. Jewell is a somewhat dystopian vision of futuristic insurance, but it does explain how the user interface of a peer-to-peer insurance market could operate.
In the story, the lead character, Jonas, acts as an insurer on the platform MicroRisk. Among the microrisks he chooses to provide insurance coverage for are vacation sickness, exam results, fashion (two individuals wearing the same outfit at an event) and being stood up on a first date. He is required to post collateral into his MicroRisk account before insuring a risk and is able to audit claims before paying out on them. The policyholder’s premium and the insurer’s collateral are frozen in escrow until the contract closed.
Some of these risks may be difficult to price due to limited data and increased moral hazard. However, the story does stir the imagination when envisaging what personal risks could be insured if the requirement to go through a conventional insurance company was lifted.
The transfer and distribution of risk dates back to at least to the second millennium B.C. In approximately 1750 B.C. Mediterranean sailing merchants paid their lender an additional sum to agree to terminate their liability conditional on the shipment being stolen or lost at sea.
There are a number of participants in today’s insurance industry. Brokers act as intermediaries to connect insurance buyers and sellers. Underwriters determine the premiums that should be charged in conjunction with the actuaries who also estimate the reserves required to meet future claims on an ongoing basis. Claims adjusters verify the legitimacy of insurance claims and assess the size of the payout.
There are many parallels between the banking and insurance industries with both sectors rewarded for accepting risk exposures. Rather than lending out funds and (hopefully) receiving them back at a future point in time, insurance companies receive funds in advance and return them contingent on future events.
The peer-to-peer lending model has thrived in recent years with companies such as Lending Club, Prosper and Zopa facilitating more than $1 billion of loans between individuals.
Its success is at least partly explained by re-establishing a direct link between investors and specific credit risk exposures at a time of economic uncertainty, sovereign debt crises and complex too-big-to-fail banking institutions. These direct credit risk exposures allow an investor to diversify her overall portfolio, and there are minimal infrastructure costs in comparison to traditional retail banks.
Similarly, a peer-to-peer insurance platform re-establishes a direct link between investors and specific insurance risk exposures. Today’s insurance companies are so large, complex and heavily regulated that the direct link between an investor and specific insurance risks has eroded. If an investor wants exposure to insurance risk to diversify her portfolio, she has little option but to invest in the shares of an insurance group and be exposed to multiple insurance risks in addition to asset risks such as sovereign bonds.
It is extremely difficult to match an investor’s risk appetite with specific insurance risks such as personal or commercial, home, car, health or travel. Moreover, it is impossible for an investor to opt out of specific risk exposures. The only insurance risks investors can get direct exposure to are credit and catastrophe risk through the issue of catastrophe bonds.
The peer-to-peer insurance model offers investors an opportunity to generate higher investment returns, transparency with regards to risk exposures and the satisfaction of directly insuring individuals or businesses rather than investing in a faceless insurance company. It offers policyholders access to cheaper premiums, faster claim payments and insurance coverage that might not be available through traditional channels.
Satoshi Nakamoto’s primary achievement of preventing users spending the same bitcoin on multiple occasions ("double spending") without a reliance on a trusted third party is a historic feat. However, it is worth emphasizing the obvious that the protocol does not wholly eradicate reliance on trusted third parties for all financial contracts.
For example, escrow mechanisms that are easily built using the Bitcoin protocol may still require dispute resolution if there is a disagreement over whether the goods or services delivered are of sufficient quality.
Nevertheless an escrow transaction built on a Bitcoin-like blockchain could be a template for how future insurance contracts are constructed. The insurance buyer and the insurance seller could transfer the premium and the collateral respectively into a multi-signature (2-of-3) Bitcoin wallet. The third signatory to the wallet would be the arbiter. Funds would be released from the wallet conditional on two parties signing the transaction, preventing the buyer, seller or arbiter from fraudulently seizing the funds.
Just as the execution of a standard escrow contract will rely on an arbiter to resolve disputes between the buyer and the seller, the execution of an insurance contract relies on claims adjusters to verify that incoming claims are valid and if necessary estimate the monetary value of the claim.
This service will vary from reviewing evidence submitted by the claimant to physically inspecting the scene of the insured event depending on the magnitude of the claim. It is currently difficult to automate this function, and artificial intelligence is not yet advanced enough to rebuff all human attempts of fraudulent submissions.
Decentralized platforms heavily rely on the efficacy and dependability of reputation systems. The upside of bypassing centralized services such as eBay, Kickstarter or Uber is that no third party can charge excessive fees, impose restrictive policies, prohibit bitcoin payments or present a single point of failure in the storing of users’ personal data.
However, the downside is that no organization is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the system. Instead a mixture of user feedback, reputation scoring and financial incentives must be combined to construct robust reputation systems. The alternative is to build quasi-decentralized systems that may be an improvement on centralized systems but don’t accrue all the benefits of purely decentralized systems.
For example, the various activities of an insurance company could be unbundled so that some activities are automated while others are outsourced to external providers. It may be the case that quasi-decentralized systems will need to be built as an intermediate step or that optimal systems will never be purely decentralized. However, it makes sense to fully explore all the options and capabilities of this technology before falling back on how current systems already operate.
Although private blockchains (or ‘permissioned distributed ledger systems’) are useful for keeping databases in sync in a more trusted environment, they are an incremental innovation when compared to the potential of public blockchains. Just as Bitcoin opens the floodgates for peer-to-peer transactions and permissionless innovation, peer-to-peer insurance leveraging a smart contracts protocol could provide a platform for matching insurance buyers and insurance sellers for any risk they agree to exchange.
This marketplace would be a radical paradigm shift from today’s centralized and spatially anchored insurance industry. The blockchain provides the opportunity to build a more innovative, expansive and transparent industry that evolves to the needs and requirements of its users.