Common Terms for Severity

In the US, firms are required to disclose their risks.  This has led to an exercize that is particularly useless.  Firms obviously spend very little time on what they publish under this part of their financial statement.  Most firms seem to be using boilerplate language and a list of risks that is as long as possible.  It is clearly a totally compliance based CYA activity.  The only way that a firm could “lose” under this system is if they fail to disclose something that later creates a major loss.  So best to mention everything under the sun.  But when you look across a sector at these lists, you find a startling degree to which the risks actually differ.  That is because there is absolutely no standard that is applied to tell what is a risk and if something is a risk, how significant is it.  The idea of risk severity is totally missing.  

Bread Box

 

What would help would be a common set of terms for Severity of losses from risks.  Here is a suggestion of a scale for discussing loss severity for an individual firm: 

  1. A Loss that is a threat to earnings.  This level of risk could result in a loss that would seriously impair or eliminate earnings. 
  2. A Loss that could result in a significant reduction to capital.  This level of risk would result in a loss that would eliminate earnings and in addition eat into capital, reducing it by 10% to 20%
  3. A Loss that could result in severe reduction of business activity.  For insurers, this would be called “Going into Run-off”.  It means that the firm is not insolvent, but it is unable to continue doing new business.  This state often lasts for several years as old liabilities of the insurer are slowly paid of as they become due.  Usually the firm in this state has some capital, but not enough to make any customers comfortable trusting them for future risks. 
  4. A Loss that would result in the insolvency of the firm. 

Then in addition, for an entire sector or sub sector of firms: 

  1. Losses that significantly reduce earnings of the sector.  A few firms might have capital reductions.
  2. Losses that significantly impair capital for the sector.  A few firms might be run out of business from these losses.
  3. Losses that could cause a significant number of firms in the sector to be run out of business.  The remainder of the sector still has capacity to pick up the business of the firms that go into run-off.  A few firms might be insolvent. 
  4. Losses that are large enough that the sector no longer has the capacity to do the business that it had been doing.  There is a forced reduction in activity in the sector until capacity can be replaced, either internally or from outside funds.  A large number of firms are either insolvent or will need to go into run-off. 

These can be referred to as Class 1, Class 2, Class 3, Class 4 risks for a firm or for a sector.  

Class 3 and Class 4 Sector risks are Systemic Risks.  

Care should be taken to make sure that everyone understands that risk drivers such as equity markets, or CDS can possibly produce Class 1, Class 2, Class 3 or Class 4 losses for a firm or for a sector in a severe enough scenario.  There is no such thing as classifying a risk as always falling into one Class.  However, it is possible that at a point in time, a risk may be small enough that it cannot produce a loss that is more than a Class 1 event.  

For example, at a point in time (perhaps 2001), US sub prime mortgages were not a large enough class to rise above a Class 1 loss for any firms except those whose sole business was in that area.  By 2007, Sub Prime mortgage exposure was large enough that Class 4 losses were created for the banking sector.  

Looking at Sub Prime mortgage exposure in 2006, a bank should have been able to determine that sub primes could create a Class 1, Class 2, Class 3 or even Class 4 loss in the future.  The banks could have determined the situations that would have led to losses in each Class for their firm and determined the likelihood of each situation, as well as the degree of preparation needed for the situation.  This activity would have shown the startling growth of the sub prime mortgage exposure from a Class 1 to a Class 2 through Class 3 to Class 4 in a very short time period.  

Similarly, the prudential regulators could theoretically have done the same activity at the sector level.  Only in theory, because the banking regulators do not at this time collect the information needed to do such an exercize.  There is a proposal that is part of the financial regulation legislation to collect such information.  See CE_NIF.

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