File_3_May_5_Risk_mismanagement_New_York_Times_Jan_4_2009

File_3_May_5_Risk_mismanagement_New_York_Times_Jan_4_2009 -...

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–2. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
New York Times January 4, 2009 Risk Mismanagement By JOE NOCERA ‘The story that I have to tell is marked all the way through by a persistent tension between those who assert that the best decisions are based on quantification and numbers, determined by the patterns of the past, and those who base their decisions on more subjective degrees of belief about the uncertain future. This is a controversy that has never been resolved.’ — FROM THE INTRODUCTION TO ‘‘AGAINST THE GODS: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF RISK,’’ BY PETER L. BERNSTEIN THERE AREN’T MANY widely told anecdotes about the current financial crisis, at least not yet, but there’s one that made the rounds in 2007, back when the big investment banks were first starting to write down billions of dollars in mortgage-backed derivatives and other so-called toxic securities. This was well before Bear Stearns collapsed, before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were taken over by the federal government, before Lehman fell and Merrill Lynch was sold and A.I.G. saved, before the $700 billion bailout bill was rushed into law. Before, that is, it became obvious that the risks taken by the largest banks and investment firms in the United States — and, indeed, in much of the Western world — were so excessive and foolhardy that they threatened to bring down the financial system itself. On the contrary: this was back when the major investment firms were still assuring investors that all was well, these little speed bumps notwithstanding — assurances based, in part, on their fantastically complex mathematical models for measuring the risk in their various portfolios. There are many such models, but by far the most widely used is called VaR — Value at Risk. Built around statistical ideas and probability theories that have been around for centuries, VaR was developed and popularized in the early 1990s by a handful of scientists and mathematicians — “quants,” they’re called in the business — who went to work for JPMorgan. VaR’s great appeal, and its great selling point to people who do not happen to be quants, is that it expresses risk as a single number, a dollar figure, no less. VaR isn’t one model but rather a group of related models that share a mathematical framework. In its most common form, it measures the boundaries of risk in a portfolio over short durations, assuming a “normal” market. For instance, if you have $50 million of weekly VaR, that means that over the course of the next week, there is a 99 percent chance that your portfolio won’t lose more than $50 million. That portfolio could consist of equities, bonds, derivatives or all of the above; one reason VaR became so popular is that it is the only commonly used risk measure that can be applied to just about any asset class. And it takes into account a head-spinning variety of variables, including
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full DocumentRight Arrow Icon
Image of page 2
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Page1 / 14

File_3_May_5_Risk_mismanagement_New_York_Times_Jan_4_2009 -...

This preview shows document pages 1 - 2. Sign up to view the full document.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Ask a homework question - tutors are online