Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day

The title of an old Jethro Tull song.  It sounds like the theme song for the economy today!

Now we all know.  The correlations that we used for our risk models were not reliable in the one instance where we really wanted an answer.

In times of stress, correlations go to one.

That is finally, after only four or five examples with the exact same result, become accepted wisdom.

But does that mean that Diversification is dead as a strategy?

I would argue that it certainly puts a hurt to diversification as a strategy for finding risk free returns.  Which is how it was being (mis) used in the Sub Prime markets.

But Diversification should still reign as the king of risk management strategies.  But it needs to be real diversification.  Not tiny diversification that is observable only under a mathematical microscope.  Real Diversification is where risks have completely different drivers.  Not slightly different statistical histories.

So in Uncertain Times, and these days must be labeled Uncertain Times (or the thin ice age), diversification is the best risk management strategy.  Along with its mirror image twin, avoidance of concentrations.

The banks had given up on diversification as a risk strategy.  Instead they believed that they were making risk free returns by taking lots and lots of concentrated risk that they were either fully hedging or moving the risk off their balance sheets very quickly.

Both ideas failed.  Hedging failed when the counter party was Lehman Brothers.  It succeeded when the counter party was any of the other institutions that were bailed out, but there was an extended period of severe uncertainty about that before the bailouts were finally put into place.  Moving the risks off the balance sheet failed in two ways.  First it failed because they were really playing hot potato without admitting it.  When the music stopped, someone was holding the potato.  And some banks were holding many potatoes.  It also failed because some banks had been offloading the risks to hedge funds and other investors who they were lending funds to finance the purchase.  When the CDOs soured, the loans secured by the CDOs were underwated and the CDOs came back onto the bank balance sheets.

The banks that were hurt the least were the banks who were not so very concentrated in just one major risk.

The cost of the simple diversification strategy is that those banks with real diversification showed lower returns during the build up of the bubble.

So that is the risk reward trade off of real diversification – it will often produce lower returns than the mathematical diversification but it will also show lower losses in proportion to total revenue than a strategy that concentrates in the most profitable risk choices according to a model that is tuned to the accounting or performance bonus system.

Diversification is the risk management strategy for the Thin Ice Age.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Compensation, Enterprise Risk Management, ERM, Financial Crisis, Hedging, Modeling, Profits, Risk Management, risk transfer, Uncertainty

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2 Comments on “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day”


  1. […] Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day […]


  2. […] Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day (April 2010)  The theme song for the current environment of high uncertainty is from Jethro Tull. […]


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