Counterparty Risk Trips Up MF Global

The New York Times DealBook blog just put out a fine piece on the collapse of MF Global: A Romance with Risk That Brought on a Panic by Azam Ahmed, Ben Protess, and Susanne Craig (December 11, 2012). It’s the most comprehensive summary of the events that led to the firm’s bankruptcy that we’ve seen so far. Until the investigations are done and the books are written, it’s a good source for thinking about the credit risk lessons to be learned in MF Global’s sad story. MF Global seems to have made a lot of risk management mistakes. It took on a big dose of market risk with its $6.3 billion exposure to the European debt crisis – over the objections of its senior risk manager. With only $1.4 billion in capital, the company could barely afford to take any losses. There may have been operational risk issues at the firm as well. About $1.2 billion of client money has gone missing, and after weeks of searching the company’s records it’s still not clear where most of it is. At best, this is a serious systems failure; at worst, it could be a lot more sinister. But the fatal risk at MF global was a form of credit risk called counterparty risk. That’s the risk that a firm involved in a trade fails to pay what it owes. Counterparty risk is where market risk and credit risk intersect: as a company’s trading losses grow, its ability to pay decreases. Moody’s downgraded MF global from Baa2 to Baa3 in October, citing exposure to European sovereign debt, a regulatory capital shortfall,...

Margin Call

There have been movies about finance before: Wall Street and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, for instance. There are films about the financial crisis as well: HBO’s Too Big to Fail. But the best movie about finance has to be Margin Call, just out in theaters and available on iTunes and at Amazon. It’s a fictional account of a Wall Street firm’s effort to save itself from a massive trading loss in mortgage backed securities. The writing is crisp, compelling, and completely authentic. The characters aren’t Occupy Wall Street caricatures of evil bankers; they have real dimension. They’re callous and loyal, principled and greedy, ruthless and erudite all at once. Best of all, Margin Call is the only movie we know that features risk and the people who manage it. And the risk managers are played by Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore! We loved it, but don’t take our word alone. According to Rotten Tomatoes, critics and audiences loved it too. So we recommend you go long on Margin Call and invest a few hours of your valuable time watching Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, and Jeremy Irons struggle with understanding and dealing with...

Risk Mismanagement Timeline

There are a number of worthwhile accounts of the firms that failed or nearly failed in the great financial market collapse of 2007-2009. Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin and All the Devils Are Here by Bethany Maclean and Joseph Nocera are two strong general accounts. House of Cards by William D. Cohan tells the Bear Stearns story very well, and Fatal Risk by Roddy Doyle does the same for AIG. But the stories they tell are mainly about the personalities of the men who led those companies and the blunders they made in strategy and funding. None of them focus closely on risk management. So to correct that, we thought we’d start building a timeline of major risk management mistakes made in the run-up to the crisis. It’s not comprehensive. It’s just a series of anecdotes drawn from books, press coverage, government reports, and other sources. Please help us build it up by contributing more stories. We’ll add them to the timeline as you do. Sometime in 2005 Stan O’Neal, CEO at Merrill Lynch, puts Ahmass Fakahany, his Chief Administrative Officer, in charge of risk. Over the next two years, Fakahany dismantles Merrill’s risk organization, firing senior managers and moving the remaining risk managers off the trading floor. Merrill’s exposure to the mortgage market grows to $55 billion, and the company is forced to merge into Bank of America in 2008. June 2006 Citigroup demotes Richard Bowen, a senior risk manager for raising the alarm over the decline in underwriting standards in its mortgage business. His report reaches Vice-Chairman Robert Rubin, but Rubin fails to act...

Top 10 Credit Topics of 2010

Here’s our list of the top 10 topics on the minds of credit professionals in 2010: 10) Risk Management – We’ve written many times this year about risk management, both good and bad.  Whether it was BP and operational risk, suppliers dealing with customer concentration risk (or “Wal-Mart Risk”), or Lehman just not managing risk.  This topic was on our radar in 2010 (and needs to stay there into 2011 and beyond). 9) Games CFOs Play – Aggressive financial reporting (and outright fraud) can happen at any time, but management’s motivation to do it is heightened during an economic downturn when there is pressure to “hit the numbers” (and not breach covenants, etc.). 8 ) Managing High Risk Clients – Sure the recession is over, but many companies are still struggling with high leverage, high competition, low sales growth, and high costs.  Lenders and bondholders will be working with many “high risk” clients well into 2011. 7) Intercreditor Priority – When times are good (think the 2003-07 credit bubble), no one pays much attention to collateral and subordination (or covenants, or any other part of credit documentation for that matter).  The restructurings and bankruptcies of the great recession reminded us how important these issues are.  We fear that the market is already starting to forget these lessons (think covenant lite and second lien!). 6) Cash Flow Analysis – Cash is king.  Real cash, not EBITDA.  Enough said. 5) Liquidity – Many CFOs (and lenders) have learned the hard way that liquidity can be the most important element of financial strategy.  Our favorite analytical tool for looking at liquidity is...

Lehman’s Worst Offense: Risk Management

Last post, we argued that Lehman’s Repo 105 balance-sheet-management tactic was not the worst thing Lehman Brothers did on its way to extinction. Volume 8 of Anton Vakulas’s Bankruptcy Examiner’s report details a bunch of blunders with far more serious consequences. Here are a few of our favorites: Although management was aware of the growing problems in the mortgage markets as early as 2006, Lehman decided to take on more risk “to pick up ground and improve its competitive position.” It chose to do that by “making ‘principal’ investments – committing its own capital in commercial real estate, leveraged lending, and private equity investments.” And it sacrificed liquidity along the way, so that “less liquid assets more than doubled during the same time from $86.9 billion at the end of the fourth quarter of 2006 to $174.6 billion at the end of the first quarter of 2008.” But in our view, Lehman’s biggest missteps were in risk management. Lehman’s opportunistic push for growth changed into an aggressive push to offset declines in its commercial mortgage business late in 2007 and early in 2008, and that led the company to ignore its own risk controls. This chart from the Examiner’s Report shows how Lehman’s risk appetite grew through 2007 and into 2008. Risk appetite was Lehman’s estimate of the amount it could lose without jeopardizing employee compensation or shareholder returns. The chart also shows how in the last two quarters of 2007 the firm exceeded its own risk appetite limit with hardly any restraint, and then in the first quarter of 2008 solved the problem not by reducing risk but...