Monday, November 3, 2008

"Beware of Geeks...Bearing Formulas"

Warren Buffett says it all, as reported in the 03 November 2008 print edition of the Wall Street Journal, titled "Behind AIG's Fall, Risk Models Failed to Pass Real-World Test." The article explains why the risk modeling used by AIG was one of the most significant causes of the storied insurers dramatic fall and current weakness.

As I have written in the past (Financial Crisis Primer), much of today's financial crisis is based on poor risk management. Additionally, the U.S. government had a strong role in the distortion of the mortgage and mortgage-backed securities market, creating a ripple effect felt through the credit-default swaps.

What is a credit-default swap? From the article:

"In essence, AIG sold insurance on billions of dollars of debt securities backed by everything from corporate loans to subprime mortgages to auto loans to credit-card receivables. It promised buyers of the swaps that if the debt securities defaulted, AIG would make good on them."

So, AIG had a Dr. Gary Gorton, formerly a Wharton professor and now a professor at Yale School of Management, build highly detailed models to determine "worst case scenarios" for the securities AIG was using for the credit-default swaps. While Dr. Gorton provided data based solely on the default potential of the backing securities, the AIG management was the final say on what was purchased.

So far, this sounds like a good practice. A very smart PhD economist builds a huge computer simulation to model risk. What the model didn't take into account is where this all falls apart and AIG is getting almost $100 billion in U.S. government loans.

The risk model of Dr. Gorton didn't account for the loss in value of the backing securities, nor did it account for the loss in value of AIG itself. Why? Mainly because the financial instruments used to create the credit-default swaps were so complex, and the other outside factors were near impossible to predict. In short, there were too many variables making proper risk management impossible also.

One can argue, as does a current criminal case, that AIG should have exercised better judgment in how it set up and sold credit-default swaps. One can argue that conservative risk management would have minimized these issues and allowed AIG to not require government financing. Perhaps there is another lesson in all of this. When something is too good to be true, like loose credit and cheap money, it pays not to be greedy. Just ask Lehman Brothers, or should I say, Barclays?

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