There are any number of reasons why firms should take enterprise counterparty risk seriously, and manage it appropriately. A perceived failure will start investors, rating agencies and counterparties questioning an organization’s business processes and corporate governance procedures. The merest whiff of a rumor of default on a margin call, or over-exposure to a downgraded counterparty will start the wolf pack circling.
Failure to manage credit risk across the entire company can put organizations on a collision course with a market, that has shown little forgiveness for both real and perceived mis-steps, and regulators demanding greater transparency. It means that business decisions are being made on incomplete or inaccurate data. It severely blinkers a firm’s vision of the future, and hampers its ability to move forward. And, at a time when cash is king, it can have a very deleterious effect on liquidity.
Constellation – a firm with a previously strong reputation for sophisticated risk management – knows all about credit risk failure. In August 2008, the power producer shocked investors when it revealed that it had made an accounting error and underestimated its potential liabilities in case of a ratings downgrade. Both Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings swiftly downgraded Constellation’s credit. Constellation was so large and appeared to be dependent on multiple lines of credit from various banks that were, at the time, either wobbly or are going under, that the perception developed that it was at risk.
Despite Constellation’s efforts to reassure investors of its excess liquidity, good balance sheet and solid commodities trading business, it got caught up in the spokes of Lehman Brothers’ death spiral.
Over three days in September 2008, Constellation’s stock lost nearly 60 per cent of its value as it was dragged into a world of plummeting share prices and eventual sell-offs.
And yet, post-Constellation, post-credit crunch, even post-Enron, when we know that the wrong numbers can do untold damage, many companies are still using a simple spreadsheet to stand between them and potential ruin. Instead of managing credit risk in a holistic fashion, based on consolidated, auditable data from across the organization, businesses rely on error-prone processes that perpetuate the stove-piping of data sets.
Worryingly, a CommodityPoint survey, sponsored by Triple Point Technology, of energy and commodity executives discovered that 70 per cent of companies are using spreadsheets or internally assembled systems to manage counterparty credit risk. While 60 per cent of the companies surveyed felt the need to upgrade their credit risk systems to manage counterparty risk effectively in the current business environment.
If companies do not wish to follow in the footsteps of Constellation, Lehman and Enron, they must grasp the central tenets of credit risk management which we call the five Cs: counterparty, contract, collateral, concentrations and credit analytics.
George Carlin once told a great story about how he “put a dollar in one of those change machines and nothing changed.” Wouldn’t it be nice if we could control change. In today’s volatile world we never know when to expect it, where it will come from or what it will bring - we just know it’s coming.
The Dodd-Frank Act, the most sweeping financial reform since the 1930’s, is coming and it will bring dramatic changes to the face of energy and commodity credit risk. New rules on central clearing, position limits and margining have the potential to significantly increase the cost of hedging and reduce the availability of credit. Many of the details are still uncertain, but the 5 simple rules below will help you prepare for the Dodd-Frank Act and other inevitable changes.
- Internal Scoring. Don’t rely solely on credit rating agencies. Your own internal model can be more accurate.
- Monitoring. Monitor your cash flow risk and exposure. Increasing capital requirements make it more important than ever to mitigate risk and seize opportunity.
- Margining. Do not use spreadsheets for collateral management. Robust collateral management is now a necessity. If you have a significant number of counterparties, it is time to eliminate spreadsheets. With the proliferation of margining they are no longer adequate and cannot provide active and accurate cash management.
- Reporting. Build flexible reporting infrastructure that prepares for today’s uncertain fiscal and regulatory environment.
- Analytics. Perform liquidity analysis with analytics. Companies who understand the impact of capital and margin requirements on their liquidity will have a competitive advantage.
We can’t control change, but proactive companies with a flexible trading and risk infrastructure will be best prepared to avoid the pitfalls and take advantage of the new opportunities that come with change. Is reporting cash exposure a piece of cake? Do you know without a doubt your IT systems will meet new regulations? Is your margining process working great for you? If not, maybe now is the time for change.
Credit departments manage billions of dollars of capital and provide a system of checks and balances on company risk, but are chronically under funded and lack regulatory support to provide proper oversight. In the rush to make a quick buck, organizations often fail to invest the time and energy they should to constantly re-evaluate the strength of their policies and procedures and ultimately conduct business in a way that ensures long-term prudence and prosperity. Even with recent financial reform regulatory actions under the Dodd-Frank act, no person, department or governmental compliance effort can totally prevent all errors, misrepresentations, or deceptions. It is essential that organizations have their own enterprise credit risk management policies in place to provide transparency and to help ensure compliance. This market perspective presents a number of timely approaches for potential improvements to the regulation and administration of credit risk management issues.
Automated Collateralization / Margining
The International Swaps and Derivatives Association, Inc. (ISDA) recently conducted its 2010 ISDA Margin Survey. Over the last ten years, the number of executed collateral agreements has grown from 12,000 to over 170,000, with the estimated amount of collateral in circulation growing from $200 billion to over $3.2 trillion, and 83% are bilateral. Much of the tracking and application of collateral (and its expiration) is still conducted in spreadsheets, with the potential for manual error and/or incorrect calculation. This can lead to the belief that credit reserves are adequate when they’re not, or increased trading that is not supported by accurate and enforceable risk-mitigation provisions. Automation and audit-ability of the recording, maintenance, and calculation of collateral and margining is critical to meet the growing demand. Under Dodd-Frank, evolving requirements for minimums, timeliness, and collateral type will likely increase. Investments in this area support the business and help to avoid the next company going down because it couldn’t meet liquidity demands.
Credit Rating Agency Independence
Similar to auditing, paying a company to review your own business and provide a rating can represent a potential conflict of interest. And yet, critical decisions on billions of dollars of investments and contingent collateral requirements are based on those same ratings. If you look to the consumer sector, where credit bureaus like TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian provide FICO credit scores, revenue comes from the requestor of the score—individuals do not pay for their own evaluation. Even with the 2006 Credit Rating Agency Reform Act and the SEC implementation in 2007 of the Oversight of Credit Rating Agencies Registered as Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organization, NRSRO’s still rely on an “issuer-pays” business model. These ratings are too important to take a chance– a subscription-based model would provide significant independence. Recent reforms mandated by the Dodd-Frank act (Title IX, Subtitle C) look to address the oversight and regulation of rating agencies, but it is still unclear how far and deep the changes will go. Market leading organizations will pay close attention and provide comments to the rule making process to ensure reform delivers comprehensive, sustained results.