Author Archives: Gordon Woo

About Gordon Woo

Catastrophist, RMS
Gordon is a catastrophe-risk expert, with 30 years’ experience in catastrophe science, covering both natural and man-made hazards. Gordon is the chief architect of the RMS terrorism risk model, which he started work on a year after joining RMS in December 2000. For his thought leadership in terrorism risk modeling, he was named by Treasury & Risk magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in finance in 2004. He has since lectured on terrorism at the NATO Center of Excellence for the Defense against Terrorism, and testified before the U.S. Congress on terrorism-risk modeling. As an acknowledged, international expert on catastrophes, Gordon is the author of two acclaimed books: “The Mathematics of Natural Catastrophes” (1999) and “Calculating Catastrophe” (2011). Dr. Woo graduated as the best mathematician of his year at Cambridge University and he completed his doctorate at MIT as a Kennedy Scholar and was a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. He also has an Master of Science in computer science from Cambridge University.

Germanwings 9525: Why didn’t this happen before?

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I attended a commemorative meeting at the British Academy in London. A professor of international relations recounted how he watched the horrific scenes of destruction of the World Trade Center in the company of his five year-old daughter. She posed this intriguing question: why didn’t this happen before?

Just a few years before she was born, in December 1994, Algerian terrorists attempted to fly a hijacked plane into the Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, French commandos terminated the hijacking when the plane stopped for refueling. This was a near-miss. The American writer of counterfactual fiction, Philip Roth, observed in his book The Plot Against America that: “the terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides.” The destruction of the Eiffel Tower is not an event in terrorism history—just one of numerous ambitious plots that were foiled.

With the current state of historical and scientific knowledge, there are very few unknown hazard events that should take catastrophe risk analysts by surprise. Almost all either did happen before in some guise, or, taking a counterfactual view, might well have happened before. Take for example the great Japanese tsunami and magnitude 9 earthquake of four years ago. It is doubtful that this was the strongest historical earthquake to have struck Japan. The Sanriku Earthquake of 869 may merit this status, based on archaeological evidence of widespread tsunami deposits.

Disasters are rare, and preparedness depends crucially on knowledge of the past. Aviation is the safest mode of travel; there are very few crashes. However there are numerous near-misses, where one or more of the key flight parameters is dangerously close to the disaster threshold. There is a valuable learning curve associated with the lessons gained from such operational experience.

The direct action of the co-pilot in the tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 on March 24, 2015 raises again the question: why didn’t this happen before? As recently as November 29, 2013, it did. A Mozambique Airlines plane flying from the Mozambican capital Maputo to Luanda in Angola crashed, killing 27 passengers and its six crew. The pilot locked himself in the cockpit keeping out the co-pilot. He ignored alarm signals and manually changed altitude levels.

Quite apart from this and other historical precedents for fatal crashes caused by direct pilot action, there must be many more near-misses, where timely intervention has inhibited direct action by pilots suffering from some psychological disorder. The reporting of incidents is a crucial part of aviation safety culture, so is advancing the learning curve. Analysis of such data would contribute to accident risk assessment and subsequent risk mitigation measures.

The 2015 U.K. Budget and Terrorism Insurance

On 18 March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivered his pre-election budget. Billions of further public spending cuts are needed. Several weeks earlier, Pool Re, the U.K. terrorism insurance pool, announced its first ever purchase of reinsurance in the commercial market.

These two announcements are not unconnected.

Pool Re was set up in 1993, after the IRA bombing of the Baltic Exchange in 1992. Since the pool was established, it has built up quite a substantial surplus; claims have been low thanks to the vigilance of the security and intelligence services. Almost all the major plots since the September 11, 2001 attack have been foiled.

Terrorism insurance is effectively insurance against counter-terrorism failure, and the huge sums spent on blanket indiscriminate surveillance have helped to minimize terrorism insurance losses. The low level of losses is not coincidental, or due to some unpredictable whim of terrorist behavior but readily explainable; too many terrorists spoil the plot. The type of plots capable of causing terrorism insurance losses of a billion pounds or more would involve a sizeable number of operatives.

As the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed, the level of surveillance of electronic communications is so intensive that sizeable terrorist social networks end up being tracked by NSA and GCHQ. Lesser plots involving lone wolves or several operatives are most likely to be successful. A string of these have struck the western alliance over the past months in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, and Copenhagen. Besides causing terror, these have attracted global media publicity, inspiring Jihadi recruitment. But terrorism insurance covers property loss, not the spread of fear or growth in the ranks of Islamic State.

Having developed a tough security environment, it is unsurprising that the U.K. Government should be questioning its continuing exposure to terrorism insurance risk. This is an age of austerity. Pool Re’s three year program provides £1.8bn of reinsurance cover, so diminishing this exposure. More cover might have been purchased, but this was the market limit, given that Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear (CBRN) risks were included.

The idea of separating out extreme CBRN terrorism risks was considered in Washington by the House Financial Services Committee in the discussions last year over the renewal of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. The objective was to provide a federal safety net for such extreme risks, whilst encouraging further private sector solutions for conventional terrorist attacks. This idea was considered at some length, but was a step too far for this TRIA renewal. It might be a step for Pool Re.

The modus operandi of the IRA was to avoid killing civilians. This would alienate their Catholic community support. Bomb warnings, genuine and hoax, were often given. Thus the metric of IRA attacks was typically physical destruction and economic loss. Islamist militants of all persuasions have no such qualms about killing civilians. Indeed, gruesome killings are celebrated. Terrorists follow the path of least resistance in their actions. For Islamic State, this is the path of brutal murder rather than property damage.

Fighting Emerging Pandemics With Catastrophe Bonds

By Dr. Gordon Woo, catastrophe risk expert

When a fire breaks out in a city, there needs to be a prompt firefighting response to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading. The outbreak of a major fire is the wrong time to hold discussions on the pay of firefighters, to raise money for the fire service, or to consider fire insurance. It is too late.

Like fire, infectious disease spreads at an exponential rate. On March 21, 2014, an outbreak of Ebola was confirmed in Guinea. In April, it would have cost a modest sum of $5 million to control the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In July, the cost of control had reached $100 million; by October, it had ballooned to $1 billion. Ebola acts both as a serial killer and loan shark. If money is not made available rapidly to deal with an outbreak, many more will suffer and die, and yet more money will be extorted from reluctant donors.

Photo credits: Flickr/©afreecom/Idrissa Soumaré

An Australian nurse, Brett Adamson, working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), summed up the frustration of medical aid workers in West Africa, “Seeing the continued failure of the world to respond fast enough to the current situation I can only assume I will see worse. And this I truly dread”

One of the greatest financial investments that can be made is for the control of emerging pandemic disease. The return can be enormous: one dollar spent early can save twenty dollars or more later. Yet the Ebola crisis of 2014 was marked by unseemly haggling by governments over the failure of others to contribute their fair share to the Ebola effort. The World Bank has learned the crucial risk management lesson: finance needs to be put in place now for a future emerging pandemic.

At the World Economic Forum held in Davos between January 21-24, 2015, the World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, himself a physician, outlined a plan to create a global fund that would issue bonds to finance important pandemic-fighting measures, such as training healthcare workers in advance. The involvement of the private sector is a key element in this strategy. Capital markets can force governments and NGOs to be more effective in pandemic preparedness. Already, RMS has had discussions with the START network of NGOs over the issuance of emerging pandemic bonds to fund preparedness. One of their brave volunteers, Pauline Cafferkey, has just recovered from contracting Ebola in Sierra Leone.

The market potential for pandemic bonds is considerable; there is a large volume of socially responsible capital to be invested in these bonds, as well as many companies wishing to hedge pandemic risks.

RMS has unique experience is this area. Our LifeRisks models are the only stochastic excess mortality models to have been used in a 144A transaction, and we have undertaken the risk analyses for all 144A excess mortality capital markets transactions issued since the 2009 (swine) flu pandemic.

Excess mortality (XSM) bonds modeled by RMS  
Vita Capital IV Ltd 2010
Kortis Capital Ltd 2010
Vita Capital IV Ltd. (Series V and VI) 2011
Vita Capital V 2012
Mythen Re Ltd. (Series 2012-2)XSM modeled by RMS 2012
Atlas IX Capital Limited (Series 2013-1) 2013

With this unique experience, RMS is best placed to undertake the risk analysis for this new developing market, which some insiders believe has the potential to grow bigger than the natural catastrophe bond market.

Paris in the Winter: Assessing Terrorism Risk after Charlie Hebdo

By Gordon Woo, catastrophe risk expert

My neighbor on the RER B train in Paris pressed the emergency button in the carriage. He spoke some words of alarm to me in French, pointing to a motionless passenger in the carriage. I left the train when the railway police came. A squad of heavily armed gendarmes marched along the platform and within minutes the Châtelet-les Halles station, the largest underground station in the world, was evacuated out of precaution due to the motionless passenger.

This was no ordinary event on the Paris subway, but then this was no ordinary day. “Je Suis Charlie” signs were everywhere. This was Saturday, January 10, the evening after two suspects were gunned down after the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo offices on January 7, the most serious terrorist attack on French soil in more than forty years and the reason for my visit to Paris.

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, as a catastrophist, I knew my terrorism history when the emergency arose in my carriage. I always tell my audiences that understanding terrorism—and particularly frequency—is important for personal security, in addition to providing the basis for terrorism insurance risk modeling.

There is a common misconception that terrorism frequency is fundamentally unknowable. This would be true if terrorists could attack at will, which is the situation in countries where the security and intelligence services are ineffective or corrupt. However, this is not the case for many countries, including those in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. As revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, counter-terrorism surveillance is massive and indiscriminate; petabytes of internet traffic are swept up in search for the vaguest clues of terrorist conspiracy.

RMS has developed an innovative empirical method for calculating the frequency of significant (“macro-terror”) attacks, rather than relying solely on the subjective views of terrorism experts. This method is based on the fact that the great majority of significant terrorist plots are interdicted by western counter-terrorism forces. Of those that slip through the surveillance net, a proportion will fail through technical malfunction. This leaves just a few major plots where the terrorists can move towards their targets unhindered, and attack successfully.

Judicial courtroom data is available in the public domain for this frequency analysis. Genuine plots result in the arrest of terrorist suspects, indictment, and court conviction. If the evidence is insufficient to arrest, indict, and convict, then the suspects cannot be termed terrorists. Intelligence agencies may hear confidential chatter about possible conspiracies, or receive information via interrogation or from an informant, but this may be no more indicative of a terrorist plot than an Atlantic depression is of a European windstorm. As substantiation of this, there are no plots unknown to RMS in the book of Al Qaeda plots authored by Mitch Silber, director of intelligence analysis at the NYPD.

Since 9/11, there have been only four successful macro-terror plots against western nations: Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Boston in 2013, and now Paris in 2015. Terrorism insurance is essentially insurance against failure of counter-terrorism. With just four failures in North America and Western Europe in the thirteen years since 9/11, the volatility in the frequency of terrorism attacks is lower than for natural hazards. Like earthquakes and windstorms, terrorism frequency can be understood and modeled. Unlike earthquakes and windstorms, terrorism frequency can be controlled.

My new report, “Understanding the Principles of Terrorism Risk Modeling from the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks in Paris,” uses the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks as a case study to explain principles of terrorism modeling. And, I will speaking in a webinar hosted by RMS on Wednesday, January 28 at 8am ET on “Terrorism Threats and Risk in 2015 and Beyond.”

RMS and the FIFA World Cup: Insuring Against Terrorism

As we reflect back on this year’s World Cup, which wrapped up without interruption after Germany’s victory on Sunday, it is clear that FIFA’s financial position is much stronger now than in 2006, due in part to the availability of terrorism insurance.

Eleven years ago, the global elite of the soccer world learned about innovative RMS risk analysis to help FIFA to prepare for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Sponsorship money was essential for FIFA’s cash flow and sponsors insisted on having insurance coverage against event cancellation. After 9/11, terrorism insurance became a necessity, but was available only through Warren Buffet, the astute insurer of last resort, and was extremely expensive. So, FIFA pursued alternative risk transfer to the capital markets through a catastrophe bond.

FIFA’s bankers at Credit Suisse turned to RMS to do what had been thought impossible – to get a terrorism risk securitization rated. It took multiple RMS meetings with Moody’s in London and New York over the course of a year to present and discuss the unique terrorism risk analysis and eventually secure an investment grade rating for Golden Goal Finance Ltd. This $260 million deal remains to this day the only stand-alone securitization of terrorism risk. Prospects for further terrorism risk securitizations depend on the scope of the U.S. Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which will be renewed at the end of 2014 with some further incremental reduction in the role of the federal government, but RMS was instrumental in instituting the precursors to these prospects.

Securitization of the cancellation risk of the 2006 World Cup was feasible in part due to the national importance of the event, which received extensive counter-terrorism protection.

While cancellation was still the biggest risk this year, the predominant local threat to the World Cup was disruption by public protest and riot. Following the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, there has been a surge of demand for international riot insurance, with a commensurate interest in riot analysis. As with terrorism, security is particularly crucial for the control of riot risk. With 170,000 Brazilian security personnel on duty for the month of the soccer tournament, insurers were able to enjoy the matches without concern that the July 13 final in Rio would be delayed.

While terrorism insurance is more widely available than in the past, it is still in short supply. Expanding modeling capabilities and increased demand for products such as terrorism and riot insurance will result in more insurance-linked securities (ILS) transactions such as the 2006 catastrophe bond, and ultimately promote a more resilient society.

Human Resilience and Longevity

I spoke at Exceedance 2014 about how the traditional view of longevity focuses only on what makes us frail and what is wrong with us. My view is that longevity is equally influenced by how resilient we are: the intellectual, psychological, and social traits that make us resilient—what is right with us.

“Strength and resilience of the human spirit” is more than just an inspiring idea. Our human resilience is rooted in science.

It Pays to Stay Positive

Positive psychology is the study of human flourishing. It focuses on personal traits such as well-being and happiness rather than on problems. Since Martin Seligman pioneered the concept of positive psychology just 16 years ago, researchers have demonstrated that positive characteristics or feelings and purpose in life help people live longer. Positive feelings are especially beneficial for longevity, and it is hardly surprising that will-to-live is a strong predictor of survival among older people.

Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

In addition to a positive attitude, preservation of cognitive functioning is critical to successful aging. The rapid loss of cognitive faculties often signifies medical decline and heightened mortality risk.

Many cognitively demanding activities influence longevity, and active mental stimulation is important for maintaining cognitive functioning. We’ve all heard stories about spouses dying within months of each other; many studies have demonstrated the destructive consequences of social isolation and the high value of a regular schedule of social engagement for sustaining brain health. The mortality of any older individual is contingent to some extent on the survival of at least one peer.

Understanding Longevity

In fact, one of the most remarkable stories about the cognitive, psychological, and social traits of resilience are personified by a single remarkable individual with an enduring will to live: the longest-living Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer, who lived to the age of 110 and was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.

After surviving the Holocaust, Herz-Sommer continued to suffer numerous setbacks, including cancer at the age of 83. However, she was resilient enough to rebound. Motivated by her love of music and life, and supported by her friends, she was buoyed up by irrepressible optimism. That optimism, she believed, was the secret of her great longevity.

Stories like this show us that human longevity is not just about pathology and frailty. Longevity is also about advancing purposefully through life.

Although we tend to focus on building societal resilience through a deep understanding of risks and uncertainties, when it comes to longevity, we need to focus less on the risks, and more on the positive psychological and social factors that promote purposeful human advancement through life. To better understand longevity and its impacts on society as a whole, we must recognize human resilience.

Impending Terrorist Threat at Sochi Olympic Games?

The terrorist threat for the upcoming Sochi games is higher than any other games since I started tracking terrorist threats to the Olympics after 9/11. It’s almost certain there will be an attack attempted.

The attack could take place either inside of the cordon, where it’s already known that there are unaccounted black widows; or outside of the cordon on some of the other major cities outside Sochi itself.

RMS estimates terrorism risk based on attacks as well as plots. There has been a lot of activity on both the terrorism side and the counter-terrorism side prior to the games. The kind of analysis we do highlights the dependence of the attack on the number of people involved.

What’s concerning about Sochi is the certain style employed by Chechen separatists – namely the black widows. It’s known that several are unaccounted for in the Sochi area. Because they work on their own, it’s not possible to track them down based on their communication with other people. It’s very hard to stop an attack carried out by just one person.

It was President Putin’s decision to hold the games in Sochi, his favorite vacation destination, which makes it a bigger target for the Chechens who want to make a statement. Any attack on the games is a personal attack on the president. After the Volgograd bombings, he threatened to annihilate the terrorists responsible; he threw down the gauntlet and essentially invited a response. The Sochi Olympics are a huge honeypot target for the Chechen terrorists.

Although there were a number of threats to the London Olympic games, because of the work done by the MI5, there was no successful attack. These games are different due to the political climate and the proximity of Sochi to the Caucasus region. While the London Olympics had great attendance of world leaders, it’s likely that no Western leaders will be traveling to the Sochi games due to security concerns.

Putin obviously has confidence in his security services. There are more than a thousand security forces inside the ring of steel, but the threat is very high. The Olympics are a high value target, which is a real challenge for terrorists. But the terrorists are motivated.

Putin has made these games a much bigger target. The games should be politically neutral, but these are very much Putin’s games.

Everyone should be very vigilant. As a general principle, I believe people should live their lives as normal and not give into threat. Some advice for visitors: Get there as early as possible. Get inside the cordon and stay there until the end of the games. Threat to transportation will be at its highest right before and right after. If you get there a few days early, you likely won’t be exposed to the highest-level threat.