Michael Powers: The Powers in Tsinghua

Professor Michael Powers holds a Ph.D. in statistics from Harvard University, and specializes in the study of risk and insurance. He joined Tsinghua in 2011 from Temple University’s Fox School of Business, and recently was appointed interim Chair of SEM’s finance department. Although he prefers to interact with students and engage in research, Prof. Powers tells us that he looks forward to learning about the challenges of academic administration in China. His wealth of experience will serve him well in his role as department head.

Professor Michael Powers
Prof. Powers’ passion for his field shines through. A recipient of several academic awards, he has published many articles in the field of risk and insurance mathematics. When asked why he decided to come to China, he says that he was attracted by the support for academic research in his field of study. He mentions that China’s insurance market is regulated at the national level, along with banking and securities, whereas the U.S. insurance market is regulated at the state level. He believes that there are benefits to organizing research projects and seminars along these three divisions – banking, securities, and insurance – and hopes that SEM’s finance department can make strong contributions to each area.

No stranger to China, Prof. Powers is very comfortable with all things Chinese. His wife was born in Hong Kong, and her family is originally from Shanghai. This introduced him to different aspects of Chinese food, culture, and language. His affinity with China is one major reason he chose to come to Tsinghua. He finds that speaking a smattering of Mandarin is helpful in getting around Beijing.

When it comes to his Chinese colleagues, Prof. Powers has only positive things to say. From “dedicated and cutting-edge” to “intelligent and perceptive,” he also feels that they are very caring and have ensured that his transition from the U.S. to China has been a smooth and easy one. Overall, he finds Chinese society to be dynamic and invigorating, as well as warm and receptive.

In studying risk and insurance in China, Prof. Powers is intrigued by the possibility that cultural characteristics may explain why Chinese do not buy as much insurance as westerners. He mentions that the Chinese idiom “Sai weng shi ma, yan zhi fei fu” (塞翁失马,焉知非福), loosely translated as “The old frontiersman lost his horse, and there is no knowing whether it is a good or bad outcome,” describes a fatalistic sentiment. In other words, there is no point in buying insurance when it is difficult to identify what is truly bad. He also mentions that because of strong economic ties among family members, Chinese may find it more efficient to borrow money from relatives than to rely on the protections of insurance.

When asked about his Tsinghua students, Prof. Powers’ enthusiastic responses demonstrate how highly he thinks of them. One thing he would like to see is for students to speak up more in class. He notes that when students do not ask and answer questions, it difficult to gauge whether they have understood their lessons. Moreover, he finds it interesting that the students prefer taking exams to writing essays. (In one case, he even promised that the minimum essay grade would be an 80, whereas the minimum exam grade was a 0; but most students still wanted the exam.)

Life in Beijing is very exciting for Prof. Powers, even though he stays mainly in Haidian because of his busy schedule. Apart from school, he finds time for his two passions: writing and playing the alto horn.

Recently, he published Acts of God and Man, a book that “guides readers through the methods available for identifying and measuring risks, financing their consequences, and forecasting their future behavior within the limits of science.” The book emphasizes the significance of rare but disastrous events such as earthquakes (“acts of God”) and terrorism (“acts of Man”). The book has been well received and has many good reviews. Earlier, he wrote Icons, a science fiction novel weaving in probability theory and alternate realities. That book is the first of a set of four novels that he hopes to publish together in the future.

Prof. Powers has played the trumpet for many years, and recently switched to the alto horn.  In the U.S., he performed with a community orchestra, and he hopes to do the same in China some day.  His affinity with Tsinghua dates back to a family vacation in 2000, when one of his former Ph.D. students from Temple University introduced him to Prof. Bingzheng Chen, the head of SEM’s insurance program. When asked about his future plans, he shares with us that he definitely hopes to work at Tsinghua for many years, and possibly until he retires.

Prof. Powers recently was appointed the Zurich Insurance Group Chair Professor at Tsinghua’s SEM. Using the resources of this new position, he will seek to enhance interactions between Tsinghua’s faculty and students, on the one hand, and industry leaders and regulators, on the other. He notes that the Zurich Insurance Group provided substantial funding for the creation of SEM’s China Center for Insurance and Risk Management Research in 2008, and that the company has coordinated with SEM to offer professional-development opportunities for the school’s insurance students.

Prof. Powers is currently working on new ways to bring government and business leaders to campus, both as guest lecturers and adjunct faculty. He believes that this is important for complementing conventional approaches to business education. In his own risk and insurance courses, he has developed teaching materials based upon useful mathematical models of enterprise risk management. He stresses that such materials are necessary to apply the fundamentals of theory to the needs of practitioners.

Overall, Prof. Powers feels very positive about his work, and is looking forward to playing a useful role in the development of China’s financial services industry. One piece of advice he gave us is to be flexible and receptive to new ideas as the world is evolving quickly, and the business landscape is changing constantly. We wish him well and look forward to attending his lessons.