Embedded assumptions are dangerous. That is because we are usually unaware and almost always not concerned about whether those embedded assumptions are still true or not.
One embedded assumption is that looking backwards, at the last year end, will get us to a conclusion about the financial strength of a financial firm.
We have always done that. Solvency assessments are always about the past year end.
But the last year end is over. We already know that the firm has survived that time period. What we really need to know is whether the firm will have the resources to withstand the next period. We assess the risks that the firm had at the last year end. Without regard to whether the firm actually is still exposed to those risks. When what we really need to know is whether the firm will survive the risks that it is going to be exposed to in the future.
We also apply standards for assessing solvency that are constant. However, the ability of a firm to take on additional risk quickly varies significantly in different markets. In 2006, financial firms were easily able to grow their risks at a high rate. Credit and capital were readily available and standards for the amount of actual cash or capital that a counterparty would expect a financial firm to have were particularly low.
Another embedded assumption is that we can look at risk based upon the holding period of a security or an insurance contract. What we fail to recognize is that even if every insurance contract lasts for only a short time, an insurer who regularly renews those contracts is exposed to risk over time in almost exactly the same way as someone who writes very long term contracts. The same holds for securities. A firm that typically holds positions for less than 30 days seems to have very limited exposure to losses that emerge over much longer periods. But if that firm tends to trade among similar positions and maintains a similar level of risk in a particular class of risk, then they are likely to be all in for any systematic losses from that class of risks. They are likely to find that exiting a position once those systematic losses start is costly, difficult and maybe impossible.
There are embedded assumptions all over the place. Banks have the embedded assumptions that they have zero risk from their liabilities. That works until some clever bank figures out how to make some risk there.
Insurers had the embedded assumption that variable products had no asset related risk. That embedded assumption led insurers to load up with highly risky guarantees for those products. Even after the 2001 dot com crash drove major losses and a couple of failures, companies still had the embedded assumption that there was no risk in the M&E fees. The hedged away their guarantee risk and kept all of their fee risk because they had an embedded assumption that there was no risk there. In fact, variable annuity writers faced massive DAC write-offs when the stock markets tanked. There was a blind spot that kept them from seeing this risk.
Many commentators have mentioned the embedded assumption that real estate always rose in value. In fact, the actual embedded assumption was that there would not be a nationwide drop in real estate values. This was backed up by over 20 years of experience. In fact, everyone started keeping detailed electronic records right after…… The last time when there was an across the board drop in home prices.
The blind spot caused it to take longer than it should have for many to notice that prices actually were falling nationally. Each piece of evidence was fit in and around the blind spots.
So a very important job for the risk manager is to be able to identify all of the embedded assumptions / blind spots that prevail in the firm and set up processes to continually assess whether there is a danger lurking right there – hiding in a blind spot.