Doris Day, Scarlett O'Hara and Financial Market Tumult

Remember the 1939 epic classic "Gone with the Wind" wherein Scarlett O'Hara protests serious conversation? Interrupted by news of an imminent Civil War, this party gal (with the famous 17-inch waist) complains. "Fiddle-dee-dee. War, war, war: this war talk's spoiling all the fun at every party this spring. I get so bored I could scream." 

As I read "Why No Outrage" by James Grant (Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2008), I wonder if this southern belle might now be heard to say "Loss, loss, loss: this loss talk is spoiling all the fun..." About structural reforms (a 2007-2008 equivalent of losing Tara, the family homestead), Scarlett might encourage delayed action. "After all...tomorrow is another day." Why fuss now?

Well, as we all know, Main Street and Wall Street are inextricably linked. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the financial markets,  does not "stay here." (Read "Slogan's run" by Newt Briggs, Las Vegas Mercury, April 8, 2004.) When huge losses roil capital markets (not just in the U.S. but around the world), real people can get hurt:

  • Employees lose jobs
  • Shareholders see their portfolios plummet in value
  • Pension plans that allocate big money to equities and bonds scramble to improve funding
  • Retirees who depend on the financial health of plan sponsors pinch their pennies further
  • Vendors who do business with financial institutions tighten their belts and/or layoff staff
  • Businesses, seeking to grow, borrow at higher rates, if they can borrow at all...

It is therefore a mystery to the editor of Grant's Interest Rate Observer that relatively few bad players are taken to task "in the wake of the 'greatest failure of ratings and risk management ever,' to quote the considered judgment of the mortgage-research department of UBS." Grant conjectures that high gas prices and an election-focused Congress may be to blame or that "old populists" have hoisted themselves by their own petard, having pushed for paper money, federal insurance subsidization of higher risks and government intervention with respect to credit decision-making. From the tone of this long, yet fascinating, commentary, Grant rants about big government at the same time that, ironically, big government seeks to become even bigger in the form of new financial market regulations.

For my two cents as an advocate of free markets (not faux capitalism as exists around the world), a return to the gold standard merits serious consideration. Improperly priced federal insurance of bank deposits and pension liabilities (and much more) induces adverse selection and moral hazard. Riskier organizations get subsidized by more prudent market participants and have little incentive (arguably no incentive) to get their risk management house in order. Regarding government intervention as to how credit is allocated, plenty of empirical studies quantify the economic "bad" that results from information asymmetry. When buyers and sellers are not fully informed, supply and demand cannot intersect at the"correct" price of money or the optimal level of borrowing/lending.

Then there is the shame factor. In an era of reality shows, can we expect honor and accountability? Grant has few kind words for market behemoths (current and now extinct) who watch(ed) the Titanic sink "under the studiously averted gaze of the Street's risk managers." Will today's villains of excess rise, Phoenix-like, as have infamous names of yore, now reincarnated as media superstars? (Nick Leeson of Baring's fame has his own website and earns a living as a consultant and speaker. Henry Blodget pens "Internet Outsider" and e-newsletter, Silicon Alley Insider - a fun read for this bloggerette.)

Related to Grant's provocative piece, a recent article about voluntary standards caught my eye with its suggestion that industry attempts may be more show than reality. In its "agenda-setting column on business and financial topics," the Financial Times' Lex states that such guidelines receive little scrutiny and are put in place as a way to attract risk-averse institutional investors and/or to avoid the harsh spotlight of global regulators. (See ""Funds of hedge funds," Financial Times, July 17, 2008.) An easy way to check is simply ask each hedge fund manager about his/her reliance on published guidelines. Inquire how traders are compensated. Are they encouraged to take pure risks or are they instead benchmarked on the basis of risk-adjusted returns (with "risk" referring to the holistic assessment of uncertainties)? Don't stop with hedge funds. Ask any service provider or trader about their controls and how they monitor the quality of their processes.

The creation of an effective reward system and "best practices" are favorite topics of this blog. Our team (Pension Governance, LLC) and fiduciary community colleagues decry the status quo that makes it difficult to reward good players, at the same time that questionable practices are frequently left untouched. Poor quality disclosure is just one factor that inhibits the design of a better mousetrap.

Two hours into this post, I'm going to conclude with the notion that "freedom is not free" (anonymous). To enjoy flexibility and regulatory latitude, people of great courage must buck the existing system and both demand and assume accountability. At a minimum, interested parties (retirees, shareholders, taxpayers) want to better understand what went wrong and how internal controls will be strengthened post-haste as a result of introspection. Leaders at troubled institutions do a great service by informing the public about corrective actions underway.

For pension fiduciaries, a critical lesson learned is this. If you are not already doing so, waste no time in getting an operational review. This extends to tough and detailed interviews with your external money managers and service providers about all things risk management. Communicating your process to plan participants (for all types of plans) and shareholders/taxpayers gets you brownie points and helps to raise the "best practices" bar. 

Doris Day's sentiment may be great for meditation class but has no place in a discussion about financial system reform and governance of individual organizations, plan sponsors included. "What will be, will be" is the wrong answer (though "Que Sera, Sera" is a favorite tune).

The power of one keeps us in awe. Who will step up to the podium and say - "The buck stops here?"

Please email us with examples of pension and financial service leaders whom you believe inspire and lead the way in terms of governance. Let us know if we may attribute your comments or should post them anonymously.

 Editor's Notes:

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Pension Risk Matters - August 10, 2008 4:29 PM
In a recent interview, Mr. Stanley Goldstein announced the creation of an industry watchdog by the New York Hedge Fund Roundtable. Its goal is to self-enforce otherwise voluntary and "weak" hedge fund practices. As I wrote in "Doris Day,...
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