I got my first tour around the NYSE trading floor on Wednesday night, courtesy of an event by Rutgers University on Risk. Good event, mainly around panel discussion moderated by Nicholar Dunbar (Editor of Bloomberg Risk newsletter), and involving David Belmont (Commonfund CRO), Adam Litke (Chief Risk Strategist for Bloomberg), Hilmar Schaumann (Fortress Investment CRO) and Sanjay Sharma (CRO of Global Arbitrage and Trading at RBC).
Nick first asked the panel how do you define and measure risk? Hilmar responded that risk measurement is based around two main activities: 1) understanding how a book/portfolio is positioned (the static view) and 2) understanding sensitivities to risks that impact P&L (the dynamic view). Hilmar mentioned the use of historical data as a guide to current risks that are difficult to measure, but emphasised the need for a qualitative approach when looking at the risks being taken.
David said that he looks at both risk and uncertainty – with risk being defined as those impacts you can measure/estimate. He said that historical analysis was useful but limited given it is based only on what has happened. He thought that scenario analysis was a stronger tool. (I guess with historical analysis you at least get some idea of the impact of things that could not be predicted even it is based on one “simulation” path i.e. reality, whereas you have more flexibility with scenario management to cover all bases, but I guess limited to those bases you can imagine). David said that path-dependent risks such as those in the credit markets in the last crisis were some of the most difficult to deal with.
Adam said that you need to understand why you are measuring risk and understand what risks you are prepared to take. He said that at Wachovia they knew that a 25% house price fall in California would be a near death experience for the bank prior to the 2008 crisis, and in the event the losses were much greater than 25%. His point was really that you must decide what risks you want to survice and at what level. He said that sound common-sense judgement is needed to decide whether a scenario is really-real or not.
Sanjay said that risk managers need to maintain a lot of humility and not to over-trust risk meaurements. He described a little of the risk approach used at RBC where he said they use over 80 different models and employ them as layers/different views on risk to be brought together. He said they start with VaR as a base analysis, but build on this with scenarios, greeks and then on to other more specific reports and analysis. He emphasised that communication is a vital skill for risk managers to get their views and ideas across.
Nicholas then moved on to ask how risk managers should make or reduce risks? – getting away from risk measurement to risk management. Adam said that risks should be delegated out to those that manage them but this needs to be combined with responsibility for the risks too. Keep people and departments within the bounds of what their remit. Be prepared to talk a different business language to different stakeholders dependent upon their understanding and their motivations. David gave some examples of this in his case, where endowment funds what risk premiums over many years and risks are translated/quantified into practical things for example such as a new college building not going ahead etc.
Hilmar said the hedge funds are supposed to take risks, and that the key was not necessarily to avoid losses (although avoid them if you can) but rather to avoid surprises. Like the other speakers, Hilmar emphasised that communication of risks to key stakeholders was vital. He also added the key point that if you don’t like a risk you have identified, then try first to take it off rather than hedging it, since hedging could potentially add basis risk and simple more complication.
Nicholas then Sanjay about how risk managers should deal with bringing difficult news to the business? Sanjay suggested that any bad news should be approach in the form of “actionable transparency” i.e. that not only do you say communicate how bad the risk is to all stakeholders but you come along with actionable approaches to dealing with the risk. In all of his experience and despite the crisis, Sanjay’s experience is that traders do not want to loose money and if you come with solutions they will listen. He concluded by saying that qualitative analysis should also be used, citing the hypothetical example that you should take notice of dogs (yes, the animal!) buying mortgages, whether or not the mortgages are AAA rated.
Nicholas asked the panel members in turn what risks are they concerned about currently? David said he believed that many risks were not priced into the market currently. He was concerned about policy impacts of action by the ECB and the Fed, and thought the current and forward levels of volatility are low. In Fixed Income markets he thought that Dodd-Frank may have detrimental effects, particular with the current lack of clarity about what is proprietary trading and what is market-making. He thought that should policies and interests rates change, he thought that risk managers should look carefully at what will happen as funds flow out of fixed income and into equities.
Hilmar talked about the postponement of the US debt ceiling limits and that US Government policy battles continue to be an obvious source of risk. In Europe, many countries had elections this year which would be interesting, and that the problems in the Euro-zone are less than they were, but problems in Cyprus could fan the flames of more problems and anxiety. Hilmar said the Japan’s new policy of targetting 2% inflation may have effects on the willingness of domestic investors to buy JGBs.
Sanjay said he was worried. In the “Greenspan Years” prior to 2008 a quasi government guarantee on the banks was effectively put in place and that we continue to live with cheap money. When policy eventually changes and interest rates rise, Sanjay wondered whether the world was ready for the wholesale asset revaluation that would then be required.
Adams concerns where mainly around identifying what will be the cause of the next panic in the market. Whilst he said he is in favour of central clearing for OTC derivatives, he thought that the changing market structure combined with implementing central clearing had not been fully thought through and this was a worry to him.
Nicholas asked what do the panelists think to the regulation being implemented? David said that regulators face the same difficulty that risk managers face, in that nobody notices when you took sensible action to protect against a risk that didn’t occur. He thinks that regulation of the markets is justified and necessary.
Sanjay said that in the airline and pharmacutical industries regulatory approval was on the whole very robust but that they were dealing with approving designs (aeroplanes and drugs) that are reproduced once approved. He said that such levels of regulation in financial services were not yet possible due to the constant innovation found in the markets, and he wanted regulation to be more dynamic and responsive to market developments. Sanjay also joined those in the industry that are critical of the shear size of Dodd-Frank.
Nicholas said that Adam was obviously keen on operational issues and wondered what plumbing in the industry would he change? Adam said that he is a big fan of automation but operational risk are real and large. He thought that there were too many rules and regulations being applied, and the regulators were not paying attention to the type of markets they want in the future, nor on the effects of current regulation and how people were moving from one part of the industry to another. Adam said that in relation to Knight Capital he was still a strong advocate of standing by the wall socket, ready to pull the plug on the computer. Adam suggested that regulators should look at regulating/approving software releases (I assume here he means for key tasks such as automated trading or risk reporting, not all software).
Given the large number of students present, Nicholas closed the panel by asking what career advice the panelists had for future risk managers? Adam emphasised flexibility in role, taking us through his career background as an equity derivatives and then fixed income trader before coming into risk management. Adam said it was highly unlikely over your career that you would stay with one role or area of expertise.
Hilmar said that having risk managers independent of trading was vitally important for the industry. He thought there were many areas to work with operational risk being potentially the largest, but still with plenty more to do in market risk, compliance and risk modelling. He added that understanding the interdepencies between risks was key and an area for further development.
When asked by Nicholas, David said that risk managers should have a career path right through to CEO of an institution. He wanted to encourage risk management as a necessary level above risk measurement and control. He was excited about the potential of Big Data technologies to help in risk management. David gave some interesting background on his own career initially as an emergining markets debt trader. He said that it is important to know yourself, and that he regarded himself as a sceptic, needing all the information available before making a decision. As such his performance as a trader was consistent but not as high as some, and this became one of the reasons he moved into risk management.
Sanjay said many of the systems used in finance are 20 years old, in complete contrast with the advancies in mobile and internet technologies. As such he thought this was a great opportunity to be involved in the replacement and upgrading of this older infrastructure. Apparently one analyst had estimated that $65B will be spent on risk management over the next 4-5 years.
Adam thought that there was a need for code of ethics for quants (see old post for some ideas). Sanjay added that the industry needed to move away from being involved primarily in attempting to optimise activity around gaming regulation. When asked by Nicholas about Basel III, Adam thought that improved regulation was necessary but Basel III was not the right way to go about it and was way too complex.