Risk Culture in Action

Risk culture is the way people behave about risk. But people, organizations, and risk are all complex and dynamic. It’s important to have a formal concept of risk culture, but perhaps the best way to explain it is through examples. Dan Sparks at Goldman Sachs In 2006, Dan Sparks was the partner in charge of mortgage trading at Goldman Sachs, and by mid-year he was troubled by growing risks in the mortgage markets. For the next six months he tried to escalate his concerns. In Sparks’ words: ”It was tough…and I mean tough…the rigor that Goldman Sachs puts on people is unbelievable…especially when there’s a concern…I went up there to the 30th floor…five times…’We’ve got a problem…Here’s what’s going on. Here’s what I don’t understand. Here’s what I’m worried about.’ As soon as you do that…they get the risk controllers and all kinds of people involved…I mean they’re all over it.” In December David Viniar, Chief Financial Officer, convened a meeting to discuss Sparks’ views. The decision was to “get smaller, reduce risks, and get closer to home.” As a result, Goldman ultimately gained $4 billion from hedging its mortgage exposures. For more on risk management at Goldman read Money and Power by William D. Cohan. Madelyn Antoncic at Lehman Brothers Madelyn Antoncic was Chief Risk Officer at Lehman Brothers from 2005 to 2007. Before joining Lehman, she’d been a mortgage trader at Goldman Sachs, head of market risk at Goldman Sachs, and head of market risk at Barclays. In 2005 she was Risk Magazine’s risk manager of the year, and in 2006 she was named one of the...

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,...

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...

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...

Lehman Brothers: What’s All the Fuss About?

A few weeks ago, the world was shocked to learn that Lehman Brothers was guilty of “window dressing” its balance sheet throughout 2007 and 2008. As the New York Times’ Dealbook put it, ”In Lehman’s Demise, Some Shades of Enron.” The outrage is based on information in the examiner’s report on Lehman’s bankruptcy. We’ve read the report, and we think there is less to be upset about than the press coverage suggests. The charge against Lehman is that they used accounting tricks to move assets of its books, making leverage ratios seem lower than they really were. The amounts were $38.6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2007, $49.1 billion in the first quarter of 2008, and $50.4 billion in the second quarter of 2008. These seem like big numbers. They certainly meet the test for materiality set by Lehman’s auditors, Ernst and Young, which was “any item that moves net leverage by 0.1 or more (typically $1.8 billion).” But let’s look at their impact not from a reporter’s point of view, or even a lawyer’s. Let’s look at this the way a credit risk analyst would. This chart shows Lehman’s net leverage ratio as reported (without the Repo 105 assets) and as adjusted (with the Repo 105 assets). It was a measure the company emphasized in its public reporting and in its presentations to the rating agencies. Net leverage is total assets less restricted cash, securities held as collateral, securities held to resell, borrowed securities, and intangible assets divided by stockholders’ equity less intangible assets. When we analyze financial ratios we like to look at two dimensions of...