I attended the PRMIA event last night “Risk Year in Review” at Moody’s New York offices. It was a good event, but by far the most interesting topic of the evening for me was from Samuel Won, who gave a talk about some of the best and most innovative risk management techniques being used in the market today. Sam said that he was inspired to do this after reading the book “The Information” by James Gleik about the history of information and its current exponential growth. Below are some of the notes I took on Sam’s talk, please accept my apologies in advance for any errors but hopefully the main themes are accurate.
Early ’80s ALM – Sam gave some context to risk management as a profession through his own personal experiences. He started work in the early 80’s at a supra-regional bank, managing interest rate risk on a long portfolio of mortgages. These were the days before the role of “risk manager” was formally defined, and really revolved around Asset and Liability Management (ALM).
Savings and Loans Crisis – Sam then changed roles and had some first hand experience in sorting out the Savings and Loans crisis of the mid ’80s. In this role he become more experienced with products such as mortgage backed securities, and more familiar with some of the more data intensive processes needed to manage such products in order to account for such factors such as prepayment risk, convexity and cashflow mapping.
The Front Office of the ’90s – In the ’90s he worked in the front office at a couple of tier one investment banks, where the role was more of optimal allocation of available balance sheet rather than “risk management” in the traditional sense. In order to do this better, Sam approached the head of trading for budget to improve and systemise this balance sheet allocation but was questioned as to why he needed budget when the central Risk Control department had a large staff and large budget already.
Eventually, he successfully argued the case that Risk Control were involved in risk measurement and control, whereas what he wanted to implement was active decision support to improve P&L and reduce risk. He was given a total budget of just $5M (small for a big bank) and told to get on with it. These two themes of implementing active decision support (not just risk measurement) and have a profit motive driving better risk management ran through the rest of his talk.
A Datawarehouse for End-Users Too – With a small team and a small budget, Sam made use of postgraduate students to leverage what his team could develop. They had seen that (at the time) getting systems talking to each other was costly and unproductive, and decided as a result to implement a datawarehouse for the front office, implementing data normalisation and data scrubbing, with data dashboard over the top that was easy enough for business users to do data mining. Sam made the point that useability was key in allowing the business people to extract full value from the solution.
Sam said that the techniques used by his team and the developers were not necessarily that new, things like regression and correlation analysis were used at first. These were used to establish key variables/factors, with a view to establish key risk and investment triggers in as near to real-time as possible. The expense of all of this development work was justified through its effects on P&L which given its success resulting in more funding from the business.
Poor Sell-Side Risk Innovation – Sam has seen the most innovative risk techniques being used on the buy-side and was disappointed by the lack of innovation in risk management at the banks. He listed the following sell-side problems for risk innovation:
- politically driven requirements, not economically driven
- arbitrary increases in capital levels required is not a rigorous approach
- no need for decision analysis with risk processes
- just passing a test mentality
- just do the marginal work needed to meet the new rules
- no P&L justification driving risk management
Features of Innovative Approaches – Sam said that he had noted a few key features of some of the initiatives he admired at some of the asset managers:
- Based on a sophisticated data warehouse (not usually Oracle or Sybase, but Microsoft and other databases used – maybe driven by ease of use or cost maybe?)
- Traders/Portfolio Managers are the people using the system and implementing it, not the technical staff.
- Dedicated teams within the trading division to support this, so not relying on central data team.
A Forward-Looking Risk Model Example – The typical output from such decision analysis systems he found was in the form of scenarios for users to consider. A specific example was a portfolio manager involved in event-driven long-short equity strategies around mergers and acquisitions. The manager is interested in the risk that a particular deal breaks, and in this case techniques such as Value at Risk (VaR) do not work, since the arbitrage usually requires going long the company being acquired and short the acquiror (VaR would indicate little risk in this long-short case). The manager implemented a forward looking model that was based on information relevant to the deal in question plus information from similar historic deals. The probabilities used in the model where gathered from a range of sources, and techniques such as triangulation where used to verify the probabilities. Sam views that forward-looking models to assist in decision support are real risk management, as opposed to the backward-looking risk measurement models implemented at banks to support regulatory reporting.
Summary – Sam was a great speaker, and for a change it was refreshing to not have presentation slides backing up what the speaker was saying. His thoughts on forward looking models being true risk management and moving away from risk measurement seem to echo those of Ricardo Rebanato of a few years back at RiskMinds (see post). I think his thoughts on P&L motivation being the only way that risk management advances are correct, although I think there is a lot of risk innovation at the banks but at a trading desk level and not at the firm-wide level which is caught up in regulation – the trading desks know that capital is scarce and are wanting to use it better. I think this siloed risk management flies in the face of much of the firm-wide risk management and indeed firm-wide data management talked about in the industry, and potentially still shows that we have a long way to go in getting innovation and forward looking risk management at a firm level, particularly when it is dominated by regulatory requirements. However, having a truly integrated risk data platform is something of a hobby-horse for me, I think it is the foundation for answering all of the regulatory and risk requirementst to come, whatever their form. Finally, I could not agree more easy analysis for end-users is a vital part of data management for risk, allowing business users to do risk management better. Too many times IT is focussed on systems that require more IT involvement, when the IT investment and focus should be on systems that enable business users (trading, risk, compliance) to do more for themselves. Data management for risk is key area for improvement in the industry, where many risk management sytem vendors assume that the world of data they require is perfect. Ask any risk manager – the world of data is not perfect and manual data validation continues to be a task that takes time away from actually doing risk management.