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08 February 2013

Big Data – What is its Value to Risk Management?

A little late on these notes from this PRMIA Event on Big Data in Risk Management that I helped to organize last month at the Harmonie Club in New York. Big thank you to my PRMIA colleagues for taking the notes and for helping me pull this write-up together, plus thanks to Microsoft and all who helped out on the night.

Introduction: Navin Sharma (of Western Asset Management and Co-Regional Director of PRMIA NYC) introduced the event and began by thanking Microsoft for its support in sponsoring the evening. Navin outlined how he thought the advent of “Big Data” technologies was very exciting for risk management, opening up opportunities to address risk and regulatory problems that previously might have been considered out of reach.

Navin defined Big Data as the structured or unstructured in receive at high volumes and requiring very large data storage. Its characteristics include a high velocity of record creation, extreme volumes, a wide variety of data formats, variable latencies, and complexity of data types. Additionally, he noted that relative to other industries, in the past financial services has created perhaps the largest historical sets of data and continually creates enormous amount of data on a daily or moment-by-moment basis. Examples include options data, high frequency trading, and unstructured data such as via social media.  Its usage provides potential competitive advantages in a trading and investment management. Also, by using Big Data it is possible to have faster and more accurate recognition of potential risks via seemingly disparate data - leading to timelier and more complete risk management of investments and firms’ assets. Finally, the use of Big Data technologies is in part being driven by regulatory pressures from Dodd-Frank, Basel III, Solvency II, Markets for Financial Instruments Directives (1 & 2) as well as Markets for Financial Instruments Regulation.

Navin also noted that we will seek to answer questions such as:

  • What is the impact of big data on asset management?
  • How can Big Data’s impact enhance risk management?
  • How is big data used to enhance operational risk?

Presentation 1: Big Data: What Is It and Where Did It Come From?: The first presentation was given by Michael Di Stefano (of Blinksis Technologies), and was titled “Big Data. What is it and where did it come from?”.  You can find a copy of Michael’s presentation here. In summary Michael started with saying that there are many definitions of Big Data, mainly defined as technology that deals with data problems that are either too large, too fast or too complex for conventional database technology. Michael briefly touched upon the many different technologies within Big Data such as Hadoop, MapReduce and databases such as Cassandra and MongoDB etc. He described some of the origins of Big Data technology in internet search, social networks and other fields. Michael described the “4 V’s” of Big Data: Volume, Velocity, Variety and a key point from Michael was “time to Value” in terms of what you are using Big Data for. Michael concluded his talk with some business examples around use of sentiment analysis in financial markets and the application of Big Data to real-time trading surveillance.

Presentation 2: Big Data Strategies for Risk Management: The second presentation “Big Data Strategies for Risk Management” was introduced by Colleen Healy of Microsoft (presentation here). Colleen started by saying expectations of risk management are rising, and that prior to 2008 not many institutions had a good handle on the risks they were taking. Risk analysis needs to be done across multiple asset types, more frequently and at ever greater granularity. Pressure is coming from everywhere including company boards, regulators, shareholders, customers, counterparties and society in general. Colleen used to head investor relations at Microsoft and put forward a number of points:

  • A long line of sight of one risk factor does not mean that we have a line of sight on other risks around.
  • Good risk management should be based on simple questions.
  • Reliance on 3rd parties for understanding risk should be minimized.
  • Understand not just the asset, but also at the correlated asset level.
  • The world is full of fast markets driving even more need for risk control
  • Intraday and real-time risk now becoming necessary for line of sight and dealing with the regulators
  • Now need to look at risk management at a most granular level.

Colleen explained some of the reasons why good risk management remains a work in progress, and that data is a key foundation for better risk management. However data has been hard to access, analyze, visualize and understand, and used this to link to the next part of the presentation by Denny Yu of Numerix.

Denny explained that new regulations involving measures such as Potential Future Exposure (PFE) and Credit Value Adjustment (CVA) were moving the number of calculations needed in risk management to a level well above that required by methodologies such as Value at Risk (VaR). Denny illustrated how the a typical VaR calculation on a reasonable sized portfolio might need 2,500,000 instrument valuations and how PFE might require as many as 2,000,000,000. He then explain more of the architecture he would see as optimal for such a process and illustrated some of the analysis he had done using Excel spreadsheets linked to Microsoft’s high performance computing technology.

Presentation 3: Big Data in Practice: Unintentional Portfolio Risk: Kevin Chen of Opera Solutions gave the third presentation, titled “Unintentional Risk via Large-Scale Risk Clustering”. You can find a copy of the presentation here. In summary, the presentation was quite visual and illustrating how large-scale empirical analysis of portfolio data could produce some interesting insights into portfolio risk and how risks become “clustered”. In many ways the analysis was reminiscent of an empirical form of principal component analysis i.e. where you can see and understand more about your portfolio’s risk without actually being able to relate the main factors directly to any traditional factor analysis. 

Panel Discussion: Brian Sentance of Xenomorph and the PRMIA NYC Steering Committee then moderated a panel discussion. The first question was directed at Michael “Is the relational database dead?” – Michael replied that in his view relational databases were not dead and indeed for dealing with problems well-suited to relational representation were still and would continue to be very good. Michael said that NoSQL/Big Data technologies were complimentary to relational databases, dealing with new types of data and new sizes of problem that relational databases are not well designed for. Brian asked Michael whether the advent of these new database technologies would drive the relational database vendors to extend the capabilities and performance of their offerings? Michael replied that he thought this was highly likely but only time would tell whether this approach will be successful given the innovation in the market at the moment. Colleen Healy added that the advent of Big Data did not mean the throwing out of established technology, but rather an integration of established technology with the new such as with Microsoft SQL Server working with the Hadoop framework.

Brian asked the panel whether they thought visualization would make a big impact within Big Data? Ken Akoundi said that the front end applications used to make the data/analysis more useful will evolve very quickly. Brian asked whether this would be reminiscent of the days when VaR first appeared, when a single number arguably became a false proxy for risk measurement and management? Ken replied that the size of the data problem had increased massively from when VaR was first used in 1994, and that visualization and other automated techniques were very much needed if the headache of capturing, cleansing and understanding data was to be addressed.

Brian asked whether Big Data would address the data integration issue of siloed trading systems? Colleen replied that Big Data needs to work across all the silos found in many financial organizations, or it isn’t “Big Data”. There was general consensus from the panel that legacy systems and people politics were also behind some of the issues found in addressing the data silo issue.

Brian asked if the panel thought the skills needed in risk management would change due to Big Data? Colleen replied that effective Big Data solutions require all kinds of people, with skills across a broad range of specific disciplines such as visualization. Generally the panel thought that data and data analysis would play an increasingly important part for risk management. Ken put forward his view all Big Data problems should start with a business problem, with not just a technology focus. For example are there any better ways to predict stock market movements based on the consumption of larger and more diverse sources of information. In terms of risk management skills, Denny said that risk management of 15 years ago was based on relatively simply econometrics. Fast forward to today, and risk calculations such as CVA are statistically and computationally very heavy, and trading is increasingly automated across all asset classes. As a result, Denny suggested that even the PRMIA PRM syllabus should change to focus more on data and data technology given the importance of data to risk management.

Asked how best to should Big Data be applied?, then Denny replied that echoed Ken in saying that understanding the business problem first was vital, but that obviously Big Data opened up the capability to aggregate and work with larger datasets than ever before. Brian then asked what advice would the panel give to risk managers faced with an IT department about to embark upon using Big Data technologies? Assuming that the business problem is well understood, then Michael said that the business needed some familiarity with the broad concepts of Big Data, what it can and cannot do and how it fits with more mainstream technologies. Colleen said that there are some problems that only Big Data can solve, so understanding the technical need is a first checkpoint. Obviously IT people like working with new technologies and this needs to be monitored, but so long as the business problem is defined and valid for Big Data, people should be encouraged to learn new technologies and new skills. Kevin also took a very positive view that IT departments should  be encouraged to experiment with these new technologies and understand what is possible, but that projects should have well-defined assessment/cut-off points as with any good project management to decide if the project is progressing well. Ken put forward that many IT staff were new to the scale of the problems being addressed with Big Data, and that his own company Opera Solutions had an advantage in its deep expertise of large-scale data integration to deliver quicker on project timelines.

Audience Questions: There then followed a number of audience questions. The first few related to other ideas/kinds of problems that could be analyzed using the kind of modeling that Opera had demonstrated. Ken said that there were obvious extensions that Opera had not got around to doing just yet. One audience member asked how well could all the Big Data analysis be aggregated/presented to make it understandable and usable to humans? Denny suggested that it was vital that such analysis was made accessible to the user, and there general consensus across the panel that man vs. machine was an interesting issue to develop in considering what is possible with Big Data. The next audience question was around whether all of this data analysis was affordable from a practical point of view. Brian pointed out that there was a lot of waste in current practices in the industry, with wasteful duplication of ticker plants and other data types across many financial institutions, large and small. This duplication is driven primarily by the perceived need to implement each institution’s proprietary analysis techniques, and that this kind of customization was not yet available from the major data vendors, but will become more possible as cloud technology such as Microsoft’s Azure develops further. There was a lot of audience interest in whether Big Data could lead to better understanding of causal relationships in markets rather than simply correlations. The panel responded that causal relationships were harder to understand, particularly in a dynamic market with dynamic relationships, but that insight into correlation was at the very least useful and could lead to better understanding of the drivers as more datasets are analyzed.


Xenomorph: analytics and data management

About Xenomorph

Xenomorph is the leading provider of analytics and data management solutions to the financial markets. Risk, trading, quant research and IT staff use Xenomorph’s TimeScape analytics and data management solution at investment banks, hedge funds and asset management institutions across the world’s main financial centres.


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