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How to be wise before the event
March 9 2009 | Financial Times | By Stefan Stern.

Restraint is back in fashion in these recessionary times. People have lost their appetite for risk.

But hang on a minute. No risk will mean no reward. You need new markets and customers to grow, and that means taking steps into the unknown. I doubt that anyone will be suggesting, in this newspaper’s new series of articles on the future of capitalism, that risk-taking should be abolished.

Bad risk-management helped get us into the current mess. It is vital that we learn the right lessons about risk from the crisis. What are they?

The new edition of Harvard Business Review contains a lucid piece of analysis from René Stulz, professor of banking and monetary economics at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. While his principal focus is on the financial sector, the diagnosis will be helpful to managers in any business or organisation.

Prof Stulz describes six ways in which risk has been mismanaged. First, there has been too much reliance on historical data among today’s decision-makers. Extrapolating from the past can provide, at best, only partial guidance for the future. Financial innovation has created a new world. No wonder some managers were unprepared for the calamitous fall in asset prices and demand. This collapse was unimaginable to anyone basing their thinking on post-war performance alone.

Second, narrow daily measures – in banking these are known as “value at risk” measures – have underestimated the risks that are being run. The assumption behind a daily measure of risk is that action can be taken quickly (through an asset sale) to remove that risk. But, as the current crisis has shown, such rapid moves become impossible when markets seize up.

Third, knowable risks have been overlooked. Managers who work in silos may appreciate the risks that they personally are exposed to. But they may not see how risks being run elsewhere in the business could affect them too. Someone – a chief risk officer? – needs to track them all.

Fourth, concealed risks have been overlooked. Incentives have proved to be particularly dangerous in this regard. Some traders and lenders may have enjoyed taking risky decisions that in the short term appeared to be delivering well for them and their organisations. But they had no incentive to report any downside risk. And unreported risks tend to expand.

Fifth, there has been a failure to communicate effectively. It is dangerous, Prof Stulz says, when risk managers are so expert in their field that they lose the ability to explain in simple terms what they are doing. The board may develop a false sense of security by failing to appreciate the complexity of the risks being managed.

Last, risks have not been managed in real time. Organisations have to be able to monitor fast-changing markets and where necessary respond to them without delay.

Prof Stulz offers a useful technical analysis. But a true understanding of risk also requires a maturity of outlook, an ability to see the big picture, and deep experience. This last is a rare commodity: impossible to fake and acquired only over time.

In a new McKinsey publication called What Matters, the 90-year-old investment manager and author Peter Bernstein offers some sober insights. “What is risk management all about anyway?” he writes. “We use the words as though everybody understands what we are talking about. But life is not that simple. Risk means more things can happen than will happen – which is a fancy way of saying we do not know what is going to happen.”

Mr Bernstein’s central point – not revolutionary, but unarguable – is that downside risks must be assessed rigorously. Someone old enough to remember the Wall Street crash is probably worth listening to right now.[JCK: elder wisdom]

“Nothing is 100 per cent sure,” Mr Bernstein says. “While a 95 per cent probability is statistically significant, that still leaves us in the dark about the remaining 5 per cent; we may decide to accept that uncertainty and bet on the 95 per cent sure thing, but there is still a possibility of being wrong.

“The crucial question to ask is, ‘What would be the consequence if that 5 per cent chance comes to pass?’ ”

Welcome to the less exciting but more soundly based era of calculated risks. For the foreseeable future, business leaders will be trying to be wise before rather than after the event.
beforemath  business  communicating_risks  downside_risks  elder_wisdom  false_sense_of_security  fast-changing  financial_innovation  hidden  historical_data  management  McKinsey  overreliance  Peter_Bernstein  recessions  real-time  risks  risk-assessment  risk-management  Stefan_Stern  the_big_picture  VaR  what_really_matters  wisdom 
may 2009 by jerryking
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