Meltdown Means Opportunity for Risk Managers

An often-misunderstood category of finance worker, which already was showing a rising profile, may now be in line for a quantum leap.

The downward slide of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, culminating in this weekend’s stunning announcements, seems like more evidence of the poor quality of risk management on Wall Street — alongside Bear Stearns’ failure, the $7 billion loss caused by a rogue trader at Société Générale, and the loading up on mortgage-backed securities by virtually every major U.S. bank.

But in fact the troubles of Lehman, which faces liquidation, and Merrill, which agreed to be bought by Bank of America, may amount to a full-employment act for financial risk managers, a category of worker that may not have caused the most recent Wall Street meltdown, but that will likely be called on to help avert the next one.

“It’s an exploding category,” says Mitch Feldman, president of A.E. Feldman Associates, a recruiting firm with offices in Manhattan and Great Neck, New York. That’s not just because of turmoil in the financial markets; it was hot even before the credit crunch began more than a year ago, Feldman adds.

For all of the attention being paid to it, however, financial risk management is a widely misunderstood area. It is not about eliminating or minimizing risk, as its name might imply. Instead, it is about avoiding uncompensated risk. As Aaron Brown, a risk manager at hedge fund AQR Capital puts it, “You can’t be a good risk manager if you don’t love risk.”

The term is squishy enough so that no one knows for sure exactly how many people work as financial risk managers. One measure of the growth, however, is the increasing number of registrants for an FRM certificate, which allows financial professionals to demonstrate proficiency in areas like value at risk and the Basel accord, an international standard for banks that is driving a lot of regulatory change.

More than 13,000 people have registered for this November’s FRM exam, a number that beats last year’s record level by 36%, according to the Global Association of Risk Professionals, the organization that administers it.

Tens of thousands of people in the commercial and investment banking sector do some form of risk management, regardless whether the word “risk” is in their titles. Most traders and portfolio managers are in effect risk managers, says Brown, who has a degree in applied mathematics from Harvard and has also worked at Citigroup and Morgan Stanley and been a finance professor at Yeshiva University in New York.

In fact, it’s the risk managers who are in revenue-generating positions who tend to be a financial firm’s most sophisticated dealers in risk. Brown gave the example of a No. 2 trader on an investment bank’s fixed-income desk, who might be getting a bonus of $10 million in a good year.

Indeed, financial risk management can be a lucrative field. Recruiter Feldman says the director of collateral risk management at a bank might earn a salary and bonus equal to $500,000 — and report to someone making twice that. A promising entry-level recruit joining a bank or hedge fund in a risk management position might get a guaranteed first-year package (salary plus bonus) of between $200,000 and $250,000, Brown says.

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