29 September 2005

Operational Risk: Volatility of Change...

What is volatility and how could this be an operational risk to our institution?

The threat of "Volatility" depends on what is being measured. The stock price. The return on capital. The key is that you want to reduce volatility in most cases. It scares some people. Long term investors, employees and customers.

Volatility is the standard deviation of the change in value of a financial instrument with a specific time horizon. It is often used to quantify the risk of the instrument over that time period.

Who likes volatility?

Volatility is often viewed as a negative in that it represents uncertainty and risk. However, volatility can be good in that if one shorts on the peaks, and buys on the lows one can make money, with greater money coming with greater volatility. The possibility for money to be made via volatile markets is how short term market players like day traders make money, and is in contrast to the long term investment view of buy and hold.

So volatility is in the "eye of the beholder". The point is that some people thrive on it and others are better off with that smooth and predictable future.

Risk in a financial institution is defined in terms of earnings volatility. Earnings volatility creates the potential for loss. Losses, in turn, need to be funded, and it is the potential for loss that imposes a need for institutions to hold capital in reserve. This capital provides a balance sheet cushion to absorb losses, without which an institution subjected to large (negative) earnings swings could become insolvent.

How much capital is allocated to Operational Risk is a measurement issue. The decisions an institution makes in managing Operational Risks is not risk versus return, but risk versus the cost it takes to avoid these threats. The key determinant of an institutions risk factor against operational failures is not the amount of reserve capital, it is the performance of management. In fact, in a few spectacular cases of operational failures, incremental capital would have made no difference to the firm's survivability. It comes back to strategy, safety, security and soundness.

How volatile are your earnings? At the end of the day the question is about management controls and measurement. How effective are they at mitigating operational risks in the areas of the institution that can't be insured? Look at places where "Change" is happening in huge volumes and at a rapid pace and you will know where to begin.

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