Confessions of a Risk Manager

Why did banks become so overexposed in the run-up to the credit crunch? A risk manager at a large global bank—someone whose job it was to make sure that the firm did not take unnecessary risks—explains in his own words.

Collective common sense suffered as a result. Often in meetings, our gut reactions as risk managers were negative. But it was difficult to come up with hard-and-fast arguments for why you should decline a transaction, especially when you were sitting opposite a team that had worked for weeks on a proposal, which you had received an hour before the meeting started. In the end, with pressure for earnings and a calm market environment, we reluctantly agreed to marginal transactions.

Over time we accumulated a balance-sheet of traded assets which allowed for very little margin of error. We owned a large portfolio of “very low-risk” assets which turned out to be high-risk. A small price movement on billions of dollars’ worth of securities would translate into large mark-to-market losses. We thought that we had focused correctly on the non-investment-grade paper, of which we held little. We had not paid enough attention to the ever-growing mountain of highly rated but potentially illiquid assets. We had not fully appreciated that 20% of a very large number can inflict far greater losses than 80% of a small number.

Goals and goalkeepers

What have we, both as risk managers and as an industry, to learn from this crisis? A number of thoughts come to mind. One lesson is to go back to basics, to analyse your balance-sheet positions by type, size and complexity both before and after you have hedged them. Do not assume that ratings are always correct and if they are, remember that they can change quickly.

Another lesson is to account properly for liquidity risk in two ways. One is to increase internal and external capital charges for trading-book positions. These are too low relative to banking-book positions and need to be recalibrated. The other is to bring back liquidity reserves. This has received little attention in the industry so far. Over time fair-value accounting practices have disallowed liquidity reserves, as they were deemed to allow for smoothing of earnings. However, in an environment in which an ever-increasing part of the balance-sheet is taken up by trading assets, it would be more sensible to allow liquidity reserves whose size is set in scale to the complexity of the underlying asset. That would be better than questioning the whole principle of mark-to-market accounting, as some banks are doing.

Last but not least, change the perception and standing of risk departments by giving them more prominence. The best way would be to encourage more traders to become risk managers. Unfortunately the trend has been in reverse; good risk managers end up in the front-line and good traders and bankers, once in the front-line, very rarely go the other way. Risk managers need to be perceived like good goalkeepers: always in the game and occasionally absolutely at the heart of it, like in a penalty shoot-out.

This is hard to achieve because the job we do has the risk profile of a short option position with unlimited downside and limited upside. This is the one position that every good risk manager knows he must avoid at all costs. A wise firm will need to bear this in mind when it tries to persuade its best staff to take on such a crucial task.

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