Chartered Actuary: I am still very confident that this is a good idea

I originally talked about Chartered Actuary status (here, with the cartoon above) when the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) first proposed the idea and set up a consultation in 2018. I said then that sometimes an idea comes along that seems so obviously good that you wonder why it hasn’t been done a long time ago.

Four years on from the retreat from the proposal following the slenderest of straw polls offering some challenge, and it remains a good idea. There are still relatively few full actuarial roles available for associates and many firms still assuming a default career path of continuing to fellowship.

There are some differences this time however:

  • There will be two chartered actuary designations: Chartered Actuary (Fellow) and Chartered Actuary (Associate), with the hope that the FIAs who were most concerned with maintaining their distance from AIAs last time will now support the proposal. The original proposal suggested Chartered Actuary (CAct) would be a single distinct qualification, a required qualification point for all student actuaries to reach before going any further and globally recognised as the generalist actuarial qualification from the IFoA. This approach has been abandoned, with no requirement to complete the core curriculum before tackling specialist modules. It will be interesting to see whether Chartered Actuary (Associate) will be seen as a destination in its own right, or just a change of letters. This will depend on all of us within the profession (see below).
  • The environment we are operating in has certainly changed, with the replacement of our regulator, the FRC, by the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA). One of the concerns that the IFoA were looking to address in 2018 was that another, much larger, profession, could pose an existential threat. If actuaries have a unique skill set, which is likely to be lost to a wide range of businesses and other sectors if it is unable to meet the demand for those skills due to a simple lack of numbers, then the need to take any perceived barrier to practise away from our emerging young professionals is clear. The move from FRC to ARGA does not remove this threat and there also remains in the regulatory proposals to date the threat of differential regulation, where actuaries are regulated more heavily than other professionals doing similar work could price us out of markets where we have value to add. The profession therefore needs to grow to increase our voice and influence over the future regulation of the profession.
  • We have acknowledged the impact of the Great Risk Transfer within the finance sector, but in my view the impacts more generally of the increased individual risks and uncertainties millions of the UK population face as energy, food and housing costs escalate need to be faced up to by our profession. For that we need to continue to be a destination of choice for a growing number of your people with a widening range of backgrounds and experiences.

So what do we need to do to make this a change worth making? We need to start behaving like a generalist actuarial qualification is what we want, and offering roles for actuaries on completion of core practice modules in future. It will mean not necessarily insisting on further actuarial specialisation as a requirement for senior roles within our firms. It will mean getting comfortable with a much wider range of specialisms amongst those we consider to be actuaries. Some are already doing this, but most of us need to go much further. A good place to start might be the IFoA’s own website, where the Route to Becoming An Actuary still features a diagram where an IFoA Associate is shown as a milestone on the way to the final destination of becoming a Fellow.

Do cuttlefish dream of the passive electroreception of sharks?

Tom-and-Jerry-tom-and-jerry-81353_800_600” by momokacma is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

We do it all the time. We assume that the animals around us experience the world as we do, with our obsession with the visual sense. We are used to anthropomorphising animals in our cartoons, but it goes much further than that: for instance if, like a dog, your sensory world or Umwelt is primarily based on smell rather than sight, then that daily walk you take with your dog has very different highlights and notable features (amazingly the slits on the side of a dog’s nostrils allow it to smell on out-breaths as well as in-breaths). We have sayings based on these anthropomorphisms: for example, the “unconcerned” frog in the water as it is heated to boiling (cited by Emily Maitlis in her recent speech in Edinburgh) may not be unconcerned at all, merely showing its distress by filling the air with smells like peanut butter, cashew nuts or curry rather than via the reactions we would expect from a human.

Our vision is not even all that extraordinary compared to some other animals. Mantis shrimps have more classes of photoreceptors covering the ultraviolet spectrum than we have in total. They are the only animals who can detect circular polarization, where the plane in which the light is polarized also rotates. However they are much worse than us at telling our visual range of colours apart and may not even have a conception of colour as we know it at all. We don’t know.

We are not even sure how many senses there are. Aristotle said there were five (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch), but missed our senses of proprioception (ie awareness of your own body) and equilibrioception (ie sense of balance). There are also animals who have a secondary system for detecting odours, or who detect the body heat of their prey via their brain’s visual centre or have sensors which both detect electric fields and pressure. How should we categorise these and does a clear division between senses make any sense? We don’t know.

Elephants can hear each other several miles apart just after sunset, but we don’t know what they are listening for. Beaked whales have a range of crests, ridges and bumps on their skulls which are not outwardly visible other than via the echolocation they use, but we don’t know why.

And finally, for now, the cuttlefish of the title. When cuttlefish sense sharks, who have passive electroreception (ie the ability to detect electric fields in other animals), they stop moving, hold their breath and cover their gill cavities to reduce the voltage of their electric fields by up to 90%. I could go on, but all of this and so much more is contained in Ed Yong’s masterful An Immense World, which I could not recommend more highly, not only for the content but also for the wonderful joyful writing throughout (AC/DC’s Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution even gets a mention!).

The recurring theme for me is how much we still don’t know about all of these animals, and the amazing new discoveries which are being made every year. Every animal perceives a different world from the one we think we are living in, many of these perceptions currently (and in some cases perhaps permanently) impossible for us to understand. It takes an extraordinary level of anthropomorphic arrogance for us to convert all of those strange and wonderful lives into the concept of natural capital.

The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ Biodiversity and Natural Capital Working Party defined natural capital in their paper from April 2021 (which acknowledges the concerns I am raising here and those raised by others) as follows:

The concept of ‘natural capital’ therefore aims to recognise nature as an asset and aims to ensure that
the goods and services offered by nature become a part of decision making by governments,
businesses, and individuals regarding resource allocation, growth and development.

The Dasgupta Review has gone further, focusing on the economics of diversity. As it acknowledges:

The Review has developed the economics of biodiversity by viewing Nature in anthropocentric
terms. That is an altogether narrow viewpoint, but it has a justification. If, as we have shown in
Part I, Nature should be protected and promoted even when valued solely for its uses to us, we
would have even stronger reasons to protect and promote it if we were to acknowledge that it
has intrinsic value.

I strongly disagree. As George Monbiot pointed out several years ago, markets change the meaning of the things we discuss, replacing moral obligations with commercial relationships. The latest article in The Actuary magazine on natural capital discusses ecosystem collapse in its final paragraph in terms of how it would “negatively impact GDP” and “economic value”.

Once the diversity of nature can be reduced to a monetary amount or metric value, it can obviously be modelled much more easily but, as we have seen again and again within the finance sector and elsewhere, that is at the expense of consideration of any other aspect of our relationship with it.

Perhaps cuttlefish do dream of the passive electroreception of sharks. If they only knew what we were up to, they might instead have nightmares about their balance sheet entries in our spreadsheets.