According to up-to-the minute press accounts, some 100 magicians are stranded in the middle of the ocean on a cruise ship with a faulty engine. Expecting a few days of fun and legerdemain, these tricksters are awaiting rescue and forced to dine on cold goodies with no air conditioning. When a colleague brought this news to my attention tonight, my immediate query was why help was taking so long. In response, I was told that passengers had to wait for a tugboat that could transport over 3,000 people (magicians included). Help is expected in short order with a full refund and a free trip for those affected.
No doubt Jay Leno and others will get a few guffaws out of this unpleasant experience for the sailing "Houdinis" - something to the effect that magicians should be able to snap their way out of trouble. The reality is that bad things can happen, leaving one feel helpless and stressed out. Also true is that adversity should and can be anticipated. That's why stress tests are so important as a way to model the unthinkable and plan accordingly. Maybe the cruise company in question did just that but, if so, why are paying customers forced to hang out for more than a few hours?
If we've learned anything from the financial market rollercoaster of late, it's this. We can't rely on sleight of hand to properly identify, measure and manage risks. Putting a contingency plan in place for any and all of the risk factors considered potentially material is good business sense. In pension land, failure to have tested the limits of a significant negative equity market has cost numerous sponsors big money. Other types of institutional investors and asset managers must heed this cautionary tale too.
Notably, in an in-depth survey conducted by MSCI Barra in 2009, "73% of pension plans and 26% of asset managers surveyed do not currently run stress tests, but cite this as a key focus going forward." This is encouraging. After all, ignoring the tail risk can lead to nasty consequences.
Other results that MSCI Barra uncovered are similar to what I found in a study of over 150 U.S. and Canadian pension plans, done in conjunction with the Society of Actuaries. Like MSCI Barra, few of our queried plan sponsors had Chief Risk Officers in place, considered retirement plan management as part of an enterprise-wide risk exercise and did not always pay close attention to risks such as liquidity. Click to access a full version of this 2008 study about the use of financial derivatives and fiduciary duty.
Pulling rabbits out of the hat is not as easy as it appears. Isn't it better to depend on a systematic and disciplined approach to mitigating those things that have the potential to destroy, if left unchecked?