In a recent interview on the John Batchelor show, Globalprivatequity.com, Inc. CEO Doug Miles described the current credit crisis as a "black swan" event. This summer, Miles predicted the valuation fallout associated with complex derivative instruments. Adding that banks can't know the extent of their problems anytime soon, an uncertain interest rate environment, new valuation accounting rules such as FAS 157 and infrequent trading in instruments such as Collateralized Debt Obligations make life very uncomfortable. Click here to listen to the November 11, 2007 interview with John Batchelor and Doug Miles.
In his bestselling book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb assigns three attributes to a black swan event in business. "First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable." Click here to read the first chapter, as reprinted by the New York Times on April 22, 2007. In his video interview entitled "Learning to Expect the Unexpected," Taleb describes the human brain as "designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative." He adds that "this distortion, called the hindsight bias" makes it difficult to learn from past mistakes.
If true that the sub-prime situation is a black swan as Miles asserts, and taking a page from Taleb, we embrace the notion that we are blind to randomness, what then is the proper role of risk management? According to Financial Week reporter Matthew Quinn, inquiring minds are asking "Where were the risk managers?" He avers that some pundits debate whether technology can keep up with product innovation or adequately assess leverage. He suggests that, even if rocket scientists raise their hand, warnings may go unheeded, especially given banks' dependence on proprietary trading. See "Risk managers return (belatedly) to Street: Chastened banks, brokerages get religion on minimizing exposure to hidden bombs. Coulda, woulda, shoulda?" (Financial Week, November 19, 2007).
In an article I wrote in mid 2003, I commented that the life of a risk manager is challenging to say the least. In addition to a plethora of data analysis skills, a Chief Risk Officer ("CRO") or someone with similar functional duties must be a diplomat, a motivator and a keen student of human behavior. Most people don't want to hear bad news since it usually means more work for them, not to mention the added stress and the potential damage to one's career of being tainted with a problem. Read "Life in Financial Risk Management: Shrinking Violets Need Not Apply" (AFP Exchange, July/August 2003).
Unfortunately, for retirement plan decision-makers, risk management is going to be impossible to ignore. Pension funds that include allocations to bank stocks or equity in bank-like financial organizations are already feeling the pinch. Plan sponsors who hired bank asset managers or hedge funds/mutual funds that invested in banks are going to be asked tough questions about the due diligence they performed. Did they sufficiently kick the tires with respect to understanding how the banks managed risk? Fiduciaries of banks' 401(k) plans who recommended company stock are getting sued for allegedly having done too little to assess the attendant risks. Just last week, a complaint was filed against the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation ("Freddie Mac"), citing poor controls that encouraged the acceptance of "risky" loans and inappropriate appraisals of those loans. Click here to read the class action complaint against Freddie Mac.
Black swan or not, the current credit crisis is going to get nastier. Expect many more litigation complaints in the ensuing months.