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25 April 2013

The Anthropology, Sociology, and Epistemology of Risk

Background - I went along to my first PRMIA event in Stamford, CT last night, with the rather grandiose title of "The Anthropology, Sociology, and Epistemology of Risk". Stamford is about 30 miles north of Manhattan and is the home to major offices of a number of financial markets companies such as Thomson Reuters, RBS and UBS (who apparently have the largest column-less trading floor in the world at their Stamford headquarters - particularly useful piece of trivia for you there...). It also happens to be about 5 minutes drive/train journey away from where I now live, so easy for me to get to (thanks for another useful piece of information I hear you say...). Enough background, more on the event which was a good one with five risk managers involved in an interesting and sometimes philosophical discussion on fundamentally what "risk management" is all about.

IntroductionMarc Groz who heads the Stamford Chapter of PRMIA introduced the evening and started by thanking Barry Schwimmer for allowing PRMIA to use the Stamford Innovation Centre (the Old Town Hall) for the meeting. Henrik Neuhaus moderated the panel, and started by outlining the main elements of the event title as a framework for the discussion:

  • Anthropology - risk management is to what purpose?
  • Sociology - how does risk management work?
  • Epistemology - what knowledge is really contained within risk management?

Henrik started by taking a passage about anthropology and replacing human "development" with "risk management" which seemed to fit ok, although the angle I was expecting was much more about human behaviour in risk management than where Henrik started. Henrik asked the panel what results they had seen from risk management and what did that imply about risk management? The panelists seemed a little confused or daunted by the question prompting one of them to ask "Is that the question?".

Business Model and Risk CultureElliot Noma dived in by responding that the purpose of risk management obviously depended very much on what are the institutional goals of the organization. He said that it was as much about what you are forced to do and what you try to do in risk management. Elliot said that the sell-side view of risk management was very regulatory and capital focused, whereas mutual funds are looking more at risk relative to benchmarks and performance attribution. He added that in the alternatives (hedge-fund) space then there were no benchmarks and the focus was more about liquidity and event risk.

Steve Greiner said that it was down to the investment philosophy and how risk is defined and measured. He praised some asset managers where the risk managers sit across from the portfolio managers and are very much involved in the decision making process.

Henrik asked the panel whether any of the panel had ever defined a “mission statement” for risk management. Marc Groz chipped in that he remember that he had once defined one, and that it was very different from what others in the institution were expecting and indeed very different from the risk management that he and his department subsequently undertook.

Mark Szycher (of GM Pension Fund) said that risk management split into two areas for him, the first being the symmetrical risks where you need to work out the range of scenarios for a particular trade or decision being taken. The second was the more asymmetrical risks (i.e. downside only) such as those found in operational risk where you are focused on how best to avoid them happening.

Micro Risk Done Well - Santa Federico said that he had experience of some of the major problems experienced at institutions such as Merrill Lynch, Salomen Brothers and MF Global, and that he thought risk management was much more of a cultural problem than a technical one. Santa said he thought that the industry was actually quite good at the micro (trade, portfolio) risk management level, but obviously less effective at the large systematic/economic level. Mark asked Santa what was the nature of the failures he had experienced. Santa said that the risks were well modeled, but maybe the assumptions around macro variables such as the housing market proved to be extremely poor.

Keep Dancing? - Henrik asked the panel what might be done better? Elliot made the point that some risks are just in the nature of the business. If a risk manager did not like placing a complex illiquid trade and the institution was based around trading in illiquid markets then what is a risk manager to do? He quote the Citi executive who said “ whilst the music is still playing we have to dance”. Again he came back to the point that the business model of the institution drives its cultural and the emphasis of risk management (I guess I see what Elliot was saying but taken one way it implied that regardless of what was going on risk management needs to fit in with it, whereas I am sure that he meant that risk managers must fit in with the business model mandated to shareholders).

Risk Attitudes in the USA - Mark said that risk managers need to recognize that the improbable is maybe not so improbable and should be more prepared for the worst rather than risk management under “normal” market and institutional behavior. Steven thought that a cultural shift was happening, where not losing money was becoming as important to an organization as gaining money. He said that in his view, Europe and Asia had a stronger risk culture than in the United States, with much more consensus, involvement and even control over the trading decisions taken. Put another way, the USA has more of a culture of risk taking than Europe. (I have my own theories on this. Firstly I think that the people are generally much more risk takers in the USA than in UK/Europe, possibly influenced in part by the relative lack of underlying social safety net – whilst this is not for everyone, I think it produces a very dynamic economy as a result. Secondly, I do not think that cultural desire in the USA for the much admired “presidential” leader necessarily is the best environment for sound, consensus based risk management. I would also like to acknowledge that neither of my two points above seem to have protected Europe much from the worst of the financial crisis, so it is obviously a complex issue!).

Slaves to Data? - Henrik asked whether the panel thought that risk managers were slaves to data? He expanded upon this by asking what kinds of firms encourage qualitative risk management and not just risk management based on Excel spreadsheets? Santa said that this kind of qualitative risk management occurred at a business level and less so at a firm wide level. In particular he thought this kind of culture was in place at many hedge funds, and less so at banks. He cited one example from his banking career in the 1980's, where his immediate boss was shouted off the trading floor by the head of desk, saying that he should never enter the trading floor again (oh those were the days...). 

Sociology and Credibility - Henrik took a passage on the historic development of women's rights and replaced the word "women" with "risk management" to illustrate the challenges risk management is facing with trying to get more say and involvement at financial institutions. He asked who should the CRO report to? A CEO? A CIO? Or a board member? Elliot responded by saying this was really a issue around credibility with the business for risk managers and risk management in general. He made the point that often Excel and numbers were used to establish credibility with the business. Elliot added that risk managers with trading experience obviously had more credibility, and to some extent where the CRO reported to was dependent upon the credibility of risk management with the business. 

Trading and Risk Management Mindsets - Elliot expanded on his previous point by saying that the risk management mindset thinks more in terms of unconditional distributions and tries to learn from history. He contrasted this with a the "conditional mindset' of a trader, where the time horizon forwards (and backwards) is rarely longer than a few days and the belief is strong that a trade will work today given it worked yesterday is high. Elliot added that in assisting the trader, the biggest contribution risk managers can make is more to be challenging/helpful on the qualitative side rather than just quantitative.

Compensation and Transactions - Most of the panel seemed to agree that compensation package structure was a huge influencer in the risk culture of an organisation. Mark touched upon a pet topic of mine, which is that it very hard for a risk manager to gain credibility (and compensation) when what risk management is about is what could happen as opposed to what did happen. A risk manager blocking a trade due to some potentially very damaging outcomes will not gain any credibility with the business if the trading outcome for the suggested trade just happened to come out positive. There seemed to be concensus here that some of the traditional compensation models that were based on short-term transactional frequency and size were ill-formed (given the limited downside for the individual), and whilst the panel reserved judgement on the effectiveness of recent regulation moves towards longer-term compensation were to be welcome from a risk perspective.

MF Global and Busines Models - Santa described some of his experiences at MF Global, where Corzine moved what was essentially a broker into taking positions in European Sovereign Bonds. Santa said that the risk management culture and capabilities were not present to be robust against senior management for such a business model move. Elliot mentioned that he had been courted for trades by MF Global and had been concerned that they did not offer electronic execution and told him that doing trades through a human was always best. Mark said that in the area of pension fund management there was much greater fidiciary responsibility (i.e. behave badly and you will go to jail) and maybe that kind of responsibility had more of a place in financial markets too. Coming back to the question of who a CRO should report to, Mark also said that questions should be asked to seek out those who are 1) less likely to suffer from the "agency" problem of conflicts of interest and on a related note those who are 2) less likely to have personal biases towards particular behaviours or decisions.

Santa said that in his opinion hedge funds in general had a better culture where risk management opinions were heard and advice taken. Mark said that risk managers who could get the business to accept moral persuasion were in a much stronger position to add value to the business rather than simply being able to "block" particular trades. Elliot cited one experience he had where the traders under his watch noticed that a particular type of trade (basis trades) did not increase their reported risk levels, and so became more focussed on gaming the risk controls to achieve high returns without (reported) risk. The panel seemed to be in general agreement that risk managers with trading experience were more credible with the business but also more aware of the trader mindset and behaviors. 

Do we know what we know? - Henrik moved to his third and final subsection of the evening, asking the panel whether risk managers really know what they think they know. Elliot said that traders and risk managers speak a different language, with traders living in the now, thinking only of the implications of possible events such as those we have seen with Cyprus or the fiscal cliff, where the risk management view was much less conditioned and more historical. Steven re-emphasised the earlier point that risk management at this micro trading level was fine but this was not what caused events such as the collapse of MF Global.

Rational argument isn't communication - Santa said that most risk managers come from a quant (physics, maths, engineering) background and like structured arguments based upon well understood rational foundations. He said that this way of thinking was alien to many traders and as such it was a communication challenge for risk managers to explain things in a way that traders would actually put some time to considering. On the modelling side of things, Santa said that sometimes traders dismissed models as being "too quant" and sometimes traders followed models all too blindly without questioning or understanding the simplifying assumptions they are based on. Santa summarised by saying that risk management needs to intuitive for traders and not just academically based. Mark added that a quantitative focus can sometimes become too narrow (modeler's manifesto anyone?) and made the very profound point that unfortunately precision often wins over relevance in the creation and use of many models. Steven added that traders often deal with absolutes, so as knowing the spread between two bonds to the nearest basis point, whereas a risk manager approaching them with a VaR number really means that this is the estimated VaR which really should be thought to be within a range of values. This is alien to the way traders think and hence harder to explain.

Unanticipated Risk - An audience member asked whether risk management should focus mainly on unanticipated risks rather than "normal' risks. Elliot said that in his trading he was always thinking and checking whether the markets were changing or continuing with their recent near-term behaviour patterns. Steven said that history was useful to risk management when markets were "normal", but in times of regime shifts this was not the case and cited the example of the change in markets when Mario Dragi announced that the ECB would stand behind the Euro and its member nations. 

Risky Achievements - Henrik closed the panel by asking each member what they thought was there own greatest achievement in risk management. Elliot cited a time when he identified that a particular hedge fund had a relatively inconspicuous position/trade that he identified as potentially extremely dangerous and was proved correct when the fund closed down due to this. Steven said he was proud of some good work he and his team did on stress testing involving Greek bonds and Eurozone. Santa said that some of the work he had done on portfolio "risk overlays" was good. Mark ended the panel by saying that he thought his biggest achievement was when the traders and portfolio managers started to come to the risk management department to ask opinions before placing key trades. Henrik and the audience thanked the panel for their input and time.

An Insured View - After the panel closed I spoke with an actuary who said that he had greatly enjoyed the panel discussions but was surprised that when talking of how best to support the risk management function in being independent and giving "bad" news to the business, the role of auditors were not mentioned. He said he felt that auditors were a key support to insurers in ensuring any issues were allowed to come to light. So food for thought there as to whether financial markets can learn from other industry sectors.

Summary - great evening of discussion, only downside being the absence of wine once the panel had closed!



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