Risks, Perils, and Hazards

Risk, peril, and hazard are terms used to indicate the possibility of loss, and are often used interchangeably, but the insurance industry distinguishes these terms. A risk is simply the possibility of a loss, but a peril is a cause of loss. A hazard is a condition that increases the possibility of loss. For instance, fire is a peril because it causes losses, while a fireplace is a hazard because it increases the probability of loss from fire. Some things can be both a peril and a hazard. Smoking, for instance, causes cancer and other health ailments, while also increasing the probability of such ailments. Many fundamental risks, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, or unemployment, that affect many people are generally insured by society or by the government, while particular risks that affect individuals or specific organizations, such as losses from fire or vandalism, are considered the particular responsibilities of those affected.

Types of Risk

There are different types of risks — only some are preventable, and only certain types of risk are insurable. Risk can be categorized as to what causes the risk, and to whom it affects.

Pure risk is a risk in which there is only a possibility of loss or no loss—there is no possibility of gain. Pure risk can be categorized as personal, property, or legal risk. Pure risk is insurable, because the law of large numbers can be applied to estimate future losses, which allows insurance companies to calculate what premium to charge based on expected losses.

Static and dynamic risks are distinguished by their temporality. The possibility of loss is uniform over an extended period of time for static risks, so static risks are more predictable, and, therefore, more insurable. Dynamic risks change with time, making them less predictable and less insurable. For instance, the risk of unemployment changes with the economy, so it is difficult to predict what unemployment will be next year. On the other hand, the number of houses that burn down within a given year within a specific geographical area is steadier, not cyclical, and so is more predictable.

Personal risks are risks that affect someone directly, such as illness, disability, or death. Property risk affects either personal or real property. Thus, a house fire or car theft are examples of property risk. A property loss often involves both a direct loss and consequential losses. A direct loss is the loss or damage to the property itself. A consequential loss (aka indirect loss) is a loss created by the direct loss. Thus, if your car is stolen, that is a direct loss; if you have to rent a car because of the theft, then you have some financial loss—a consequential loss—from renting a car.

Legal risk (aka liability risk) is a particular type of personal risk that you will be sued because of neglect, malpractice, or causing willful injury either to another person or to someone else's property. Legal risk is the possibility of financial loss if you are found liable, or the financial loss incurred just defending yourself, even if you are not found liable. Most personal, property, and legal risks are insurable.

Speculative risk differs from pure risk because there is the possibility of profit or loss, such as investing in financial markets. Most speculative risks are uninsurable, because they are undertaken willingly for the hope of profit. Also, speculative risk will generally involve a greater frequency of loss than a pure risk, since profit is the only other possibility. So although many people take precautions to protect their lives or their property, they willingly engage in speculative risks, such as investing in the stock market, to make a profit; otherwise, a person could avoid most speculative risks simply by avoiding the activity that gives rise to it.

The speculative risk of investments can also be distinguished as systemic risk (a.k.a. systematic risk) or diversifiable risk (a.k.a. unsystematic risk). Systemic risk affects the whole economy, causing the value of many financial instruments to lose value. Diversifiable risk, on the other hand, affects only specific investments, such as particular stocks or particular assets. It is called a diversifiable risk because this risk can be minimized by diversifying investments, by not putting all of your eggs in one basket. By contrast, systemic risk cannot be diversified away, because it affects almost all investments. Systemic risk can be minimized if the investments are diversified and held long enough, since the value of most investments, like businesses, goes through cycles.

Unlike pure risk, where there is only possibility of a loss, society benefits from speculative risks. For instance, investments benefit society, and starting a business helps to create jobs and generate tax revenue for society, and can lead to economic growth, or even technological advancement.

Risk can also be classified as to whether it affects many people or only a single individual. Fundamental risk is a risk, such as an earthquake or terrorism, that can affect many people at once. Economic risks, such as unemployment, are also fundamental risks because they affect many people. Particular risk is a risk that affects particular individuals, such as robbery or vandalism. Insurance companies generally insure some fundamental risks, such as hurricane or wind damage, and most particular risks. In the case of fundamental risks that are insured, insurance companies help to reduce their risk of great financial loss by limiting coverage in a specific geographic area and by the use of reinsurance, which is the purchase of insurance from other companies to cover their potential losses. However, private insurers do not insure many fundamental risks, such as unemployment. These risks are generally insured by the government, because the government has some control over economic risks through specific policies, such as monetary policy, and law. Fundamental and particular risks can be pure or speculative risks.

Fundamental risks are risks that affect many members of society, but fundamental risks can also affect organizations. For instance, enterprise risk is the set of all risks that affects a business enterprise. Speculative risks that can affect an organization are usually subdivided into strategic risk, operational risk, and financial risk. Strategic risk results from goal-oriented behavior. A business may want to try to improve efficiency by buying new equipment or trying a new technique, but may result in more losses than gains. Operational risks arise from the operation of the enterprise, such as the risk of injury to employees, or the risk that customers' data can be leaked to the public because of insufficient security. Financial risk is the risk that an investment will result in losses. Because most enterprise risk is speculative risk, and because the enterprise itself can do much to lower its own risk, many companies are learning to manage their risk by creating departments and hiring people with the express purpose of reducing enterprise risks—enterprise risk management. Many larger firms may have a chief risk officer (CRO) with the primary responsibility of reducing risk throughout the enterprise.

Peril and Hazard

Risk is the chance of loss, and peril is the direct cause of the loss. If a house burns down, then fire is the peril. A hazard is anything that either causes or increases the likelihood of a loss. For instance, gas furnaces are a hazard for carbon monoxide poisoning. A physical hazard is a physical condition that increases the possibility of a loss. Thus, smoking is a physical hazard that increases the likelihood of a house fire and illness.

Moral hazards are losses that results from dishonesty. Thus, insurance companies suffer losses because of fraudulent or inflated claims. The American legal system is a moral hazard in that it motivates many people to sue simply for financial profit because of the enormous amount of money that can sometimes be won, and because there is little cost to the plaintiff, even if he loses. A good example is the current asbestos litigation, which has bankrupted many companies, even though very few plaintiffs show any real evidence of disease, and are unlikely to ever develop any disease that can be shown, by the preponderance of the evidence, to have resulted from asbestos exposure. This type of moral hazard is often referred to as legal hazard. Legal hazard can also result from laws or regulations that force insurance companies to cover risks that they would otherwise not cover, such as including coverage for alcoholism in health insurance.

Insurance can be regarded as a morale hazard because it increases the possibility of a loss that results from the insured worrying less about losses. Therefore, they take fewer precautions and may engage in riskier activities—because they have insurance. A good example of morale hazard is when the federal government bails out financial institutions who have made bad decisions. Many financial institutions have taken significant risks in the recent subprime debacle by buying toxic instruments, such as CDOs and mortgage-backed securities based on subprime mortgages that paid high yields, but were extremely risky. The financial institutions have considered themselves too big to fail—in other words, if things started going badly, then the federal government would step in to stop their collapse for fear that the whole financial system will collapse, which is exactly what the federal government did in September, 2008. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae have both been taken over by the government, and American International Group (AIG) has been propped up by an infusion of $85 billion of taxpayers' money. AIG sold credit default swaps on mortgage-backed securities to buyers, mostly banks, thinking that they could collect the premiums, but would never have to actually to pay for defaults—but if they were wrong, then the government would save them, because otherwise the banks that had bought that credit default protection could also possibly fail. As recent events have demonstrated all too clearly, this federal government "insurance" creates a morale hazard for financial institutions—taxpayers pay the premium, but the big financial institutions, with their overpaid CEOs and managers, receive the benefits!

Distinction Between Moral Hazard and Morale Hazard

The distinction between moral and morale hazard in insurance is one of intention, but in other disciplines, such as banking, the term moral hazard is used in a more general sense that includes morale hazard. Moral hazard is often applied to a receiver of funds, such as a borrower, and means that there is a risk that the receiver of funds will not use the money as was intended or that they may take unnecessary risks or not be vigilant in reducing risk. This definition includes not only intentional dishonesty, but also a change in behavior that results from using someone else's money, which, in insurance, would be described as morale hazard.

See Information Asymmetry: Adverse Selection And Moral Hazard for more information about how moral hazard applies to the banking industry.