http://www.economist.com/finance/displayStory.cfm?story_id=11901591&source=features_box_main Aug 7th 2008 From The Economist print edition An insider explains why it is so hard to stop traders behaving recklessly IN JANUARY 2007 the world looked almost riskless. At the beginning of that year I gathered my team for an off-site meeting to identify our top five risks for the coming 12 months. We were paid to think about the downsides but it was hard to see where the problems would come from. Four years of falling credit spreads, low interest rates, virtually no defaults in our loan portfolio and historically low volatility levels: it was the most benign risk environment we had seen in 20 years. As risk managers we were responsible for approving credit requests and transactions submitted to us by the bankers and traders in the front-line. We also monitored and reported the level of risk across the bankÂ¡Â¦s portfolio and set limits for overall credit and market-risk positions. The possibility that liquidity could suddenly dry up was always a topic high on our list but we could only see more liquidity coming into the marketÂ¡Xnot going out of it. Institutional investors, hedge funds, private-equity firms and sovereign-wealth funds were all looking to invest in assets. This was why credit spreads were narrowing, especially in emerging markets, and debt-to-earnings ratios on private-equity financings were increasing. Â¡Â§Where is the liquidity crisis supposed to come from?Â¡Â¨ somebody asked in the meeting. No one could give a good answer. Looking back on it now we should of course have paid more attention to the first signs of trouble. No crisis comes completely out of the blue; there are always clues and advance warnings if you can only interpret them correctly. It was the hiccup in the structured-credit market in May 2005 which gave the strongest indication of what was to come. In that month bonds of General Motors were marked down by the rating agencies from investment grade to non-investment grade, or Â¡Â§junkÂ¡Â¨. Because the American carmakerÂ¡Â¦s bonds were widely held in structured-credit portfolios, the downgrades caused a big dislocation in the market. Like most banks we owned a portfolio of different tranches of collateralised-debt obligations (CDOs), which are packages of asset-backed securities. Our business and risk strategy was to buy pools of assets, mainly bonds; warehouse them on our own balance-sheet and structure them into CDOs; and finally distribute them to end investors. We were most eager to sell the non-investment-grade tranches, and our risk approvals were conditional on reducing these to zero. We would allow positions of the top-rated AAA and super-senior (even better than AAA) tranches to be held on our own balance-sheet as the default risk was deemed to be well protected by all the lower tranches, which would have to absorb any prior losses. In May 2005 we held AAA tranches, expecting them to rise in value, and sold non-investment-grade tranches, expecting them to go down. From a risk-management point of view, this was perfect: have a long position in the low-risk asset, and a short one in the higher-risk one. But the reverse happened of what we had expected: AAA tranches went down in price and non-investment-grade tranches went up, resulting in losses as we marked the positions to market. This was entirely counter-intuitive. Explanations of why this had happened were confusing and focused on complicated cross-correlations between tranches. In essence it turned out that there had been a short squeeze in non-investment-grade tranches, driving their prices up, and a general selling of all more senior structured tranches, even the very best AAA ones. That mini-liquidity crisis was to be replayed on a very big scale in the summer of 2007. But we had failed to draw the correct conclusions. As risk managers we should have insisted that all structured tranches, not just the non-investment-grade ones, be sold. But we did not believe that prices on AAA assets could fall by more than about 1% in price. A 20% drop on assets with virtually no default risk seemed inconceivableÂ¡Xthough this did eventually occur. Liquidity risk was in effect not priced well enough; the market always allowed for it, but at only very small margins prior to the credit crisis. So how did we get ourselves into a situation where we built up such large trading positions? There were a number of factors. As is often the case, it happened so gradually that it was barely perceptible. Fighting the last war The focus of our risk management was on the loan portfolio and classic market risk. Loans were illiquid and accounted for on an accrual basis in the Â¡Â§banking bookÂ¡Â¨ rather than on a mark-to-market basis in the Â¡Â§trading bookÂ¡Â¨. Rigorous credit analysis to ensure minimum loan-loss provisions was important. Loan risks and classic market risks were generally well understood and regularly reviewed. Equities, government bonds and foreign exchange, and their derivatives, were well managed in the trading book and monitored on a daily basis. The gap in our risk management only opened up gradually over the years with the growth of traded credit products such as CDO tranches and other asset-backed securities. These sat uncomfortably between market and credit risk. The market-risk department never really took ownership of them, believing them to be primarily credit-risk instruments, and the credit-risk department thought of them as market risk as they sat in the trading book. The explosive growth and profitability of the structured-credit market made this ÆÃ¨ an ever greater problem. Our risk-management response was half-hearted. We set portfolio limits on each rating category but otherwise left the trading desks to their own devices. We made two assumptions which would cost us dearly. First, we thought that all mark-to-market positions in the trading book would receive immediate attention when losses occurred, because their profits and losses were published daily. Second, we assumed that, if the market ran into difficulties, we could easily adjust and liquidate our positions, especially on securities rated AAA and AA. Our focus was always on the non-investment-grade part of the portfolio, especially the emerging-markets paper. The previous crises in Russia and Latin America had left a deeply ingrained fear of sudden liquidity shocks and widening credit spreads. Ironically, of course, in the credit crunch the emerging-market bonds have outperformed the Western credit assets. We also trusted the rating agencies. It is hard to imagine now but the reputation of outside bond ratings was so high that if the risk department had ever assigned a lower rating, our judgment would have been immediately questioned. It was assumed that the rating agencies simply knew best. We were thus comfortable with investment-grade assets and were struggling with the huge volume of business. We were too slow to sell these better-rated assets. We needed little capital to support them; there was no liquidity charge, very little default risk and a small positive margin, or Â¡Â§carryÂ¡Â¨, between holding the assets and their financing in the liquid interbank and repo markets. Gradually the structures became more complicated. Since they were held in the trading book, many avoided the rigorous credit process applied to the banking-book assets which might have identified some of the weaknesses. The pressure on the risk department to keep up and approve transactions was immense. Psychology played a big part. The risk department had a separate reporting line to the board to preserve its independence. This had been reinforced by the regulators who believed it was essential for objective risk analysis and assessment. However, this separation hurt our relationship with the bankers and traders we were supposed to monitor.