Risk Is ………

December 2, 2008 by Guest Contributor

By: Tom Hannagan

In several posts we’ve discussed financial risk management, the role of risk-based capital, measuring profitability based on risk characteristics and the need for risk-based loan pricing (credit risk modeling). I thought it might be worthwhile to take one step back and explain what we mean by the term “risk.”

“Risk” means unpredictable variability. Reliable predictions of an outcome tend to reduce the risk associated with that outcome. Similarly, low levels of variability also tend to reduce risk. People who are “set in their ways” tend to lead less risky lives than the more adventuresome types. Insurance companies love the former and charge additional premiums to the latter. This is a terrific example of risk-based pricing.

Risk goes to both extremes. It is equally impossible to predict who will win a record amount in the lottery (a good outcome) and who will be struck by a meteor (a very bad outcome for the strikee). Both occurrences represent significant outcomes (very high variability from the norm). However, the probability of either event happening to any one of us is infinitesimally small. Therefore, the actual risk is small – not even enough to bother planning for or mitigating. That is why most of us don’t buy meteor strike insurance. It is also why most of us don’t have a private jet on order.

Most of us do purchase auto insurance, even in states that do not require it. Auto accidents (outcomes) happen often enough that actuaries can and do make a lot of good predictions as to both the number of such events and their cost impact. In fact, so many companies are good at this that they can and do compete on their prices for taking on our risk. The result is that we can economically mitigate our individual inability to predict a collision by buying car insurance.

Financial services involve risk. Banks have many of the same operational risks as other non-financial businesses. They additionally have a lot of credit risk associated with lending money to individuals and businesses. Further, banks are highly leveraged, borrowing funds from depositors and other sources to support their lending activities. Because banks are both collecting interest income and incurring interest expense, they are subject to market, or interest rate, risk.

Banks create credit policies and processes to help them manage credit risk. They try to limit the level of risk and predict how much they are incurring so they can reserve some funds to offset losses. To the extent that banks don’t do this well, they are acting like insurance companies without good actuarial support. It results in a practice called “adverse selection” – incorrectly pricing risk and gathering many of the worst (riskiest) customers.

Sufficiently good credit risk management practices control and predict most of the bad outcomes most of the time, at least at portfolio levels. Bad outcomes (losses) that are not well-predicted, and therefore mitigated with sufficient loan-loss reserves, will negatively impact the bank’s earnings and capital position. If the losses are large enough, they can wipe out capital and result in the bank’s failure.

Market risk is different than credit risk. The bank’s assets are mostly invested in loans and securities (about 90% of average assets). These loans and securities have differing interest rate structures – some are fixed and some are floating. They also have differing maturities. Meanwhile, the bank’s liabilities, deposits and borrowings also have differing maturities and interest rate characteristics. If the bank’s (asset-based) interest income structure is not properly aligned with the (liability-based) interest expense structure, the result is interest rate risk. As market rates change (up or down), the bank’s earning are impacted (positively or negatively) based on the mismatch in its balance sheet structure.

The bank can offset market risk by purchasing interest rate swaps or other interest rate derivatives. The impact of insufficient attention to interest rate risk can damage earnings and may, again, negatively affect the bank’s capital position.

So, ultimately, the bank’s risk-based capital acts as the last line of defense against the negative impact from, you guessed it, unpredictable variability – or “risk.” That is why equity is considered risk-based capital. Good management, predicting and pricing for all risks leads to safer earnings performance and equity position.