Thursday, January 24, 2008

A crisis of confidence

There is nothing like a whiff of a financial crisis, to inspire technology vendors to espouse such pearls of wisdom, which go something along the lines of, 'Well if they had implemented such and such a piece of software, that does so many millions of risk calculations per second, then they would have been able to calculate their real risk exposure much earlier on and perhaps prevented such a crisis.'

Some grid computing and data management vendors have been having a field day with the current crisis sweeping through the global credit markets. I for one remain sceptical as to whether technology can really overcome the financial markets' overwhelming desire to not only make money, but to behave like a pack of herd animals converging on a tasty corpse.

Although risk management and Basel II may be at the top of the agenda (well at least it is at the top of regulators' agenda), does any amount of technology and advanced risk measurement approaches really make a difference, or have recent events merely provided the stimulus that tipped over an already precarious house of cards? The apple was already rotten and recent events have only served to demonstrate how rotten it actually is.

Confidence in banks, particularly those that were considered to be financial heavyweights that could survive almost anything, including a nuclear holocaust, is at an all time low, and one has to ask have we only seen the beginning of the unsightly chinks in the banks' armour?

Then there was today's announcement by Société Générale that it had uncovered €5 billion of losses caused by a rogue trader dealing in European stock futures. Sound familiar? Nick Leeson of Barings Bank lost approximately £800 million in 1995 in rogue trades.

Commenting on the SocGen announcement, David Dearman a partner at accountants and business advisers, PKF had this to say:

"This fraud highlights the continuing lack of controls at some major financial institutions. The lessons of the Nick Leeson and Barings case in 1995 appear to have been forgotten by some. The scale of this clearly surpasses that fraud and is truly shocking."

According to Dearman, there was much "soul-searching" and review of procedures at financial institutions in the City of London following the Barings' incident, and procedures were tightened in a number of instances.

"I can only trust that the procedures adopted in the City a decade ago are working and being regularly reviewed, but there will undoubtedly be some very nervous senior people in the industry today," Dearman continues.

Interestingly, perhaps what both incidences highlight is the ability for someone with detailed knowledge of a bank's control systems to override those very systems put in place to prevent such an incident from occurring.

It reminds me of a comment one compliance consultant made not so long ago, that banks tend to focus more on external threats as opposed to internal threats. One has to ask though, would any amount of sophisticated risk management techniques and real-time data management technologies have uncovered or even been able to prevent someone using their knowledge of a company’s security systems to conceal fraudulent positions?

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