Friday, February 29, 2008

Playing with risk

I received this rather intriguing email from Eurofinance, which organises conferences for corporate treasurers, regarding a new board game they are going to unleash at Eurofinance Miami 2008.

Called, 'Cash Flow at Risk', Eurofinance designed the game to teach treasurers how to come to grips with the cash flow, credit and liquidity uncertainties ahead. I do wonder though if they should be targeting it more at the banks, given that it was them that seemed to lose their way.

Apparently, HSBC uses the board game as part of its corporate training, although one wonders if a board game, let alone a major credit crunch, is really going to teach banks anything about risk.

You may think I am being a little harsh, but the other day a risk management consultant told me he had started a training company as a sideline for his consultancy business, as selling risk to banks was a bit of a difficult sell. No bank wanted to really think about risk too much as it might stem their financially motivated creative urges.

The board game requires participants to answer economic questions in order to progress, but one has a feeling for some participants it would be a case of "Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200".

Can a board game though really teach treasurers about the "dangers ahead"? Is a simple toss of the dice and answering a few economic questions going to resonate with financial managers sitting in boardrooms across the country, the very same managers who in the real world, and not one confined to a board game, perhaps saw the warning signs but chose to ignore them?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What went wrong at SocGen?

Well, the SocGen saga continues, with the commercial and investment bank reportedly publishing a report in French detailing how the trader Jerome Kerviel managed to evade controls.

Following publication of the report, IBM, the latest vendor to jump on the What Went Wrong at SocGen bandwagon, sent out an email reiterating the question everyone has been asking: How can you manipulate tens of billions unnoticed?

As I do not read French I am going to have to rely on IBM's interpretation of SocGen's interim internal investigation report, which reportedly claims that Kerviel's "position keeping and risk systems were unable to report such a large exposure because they [failed] to capture distant forward, incomplete and modified trades, and they were known to function improperly and be prone to recurrent errors."

An IBM spokesperson expressed amazement that a sophisticated organization was not capable of managing and properly reporting such simple transactions as stock future purchases, on the account that they were following unusual trading patterns (distant forward dates, multiple modifications, cancellations and transfers.)

Risk consultants from IBM Business Consulting Services outlined some of the major causes of large trading losses and stated that the "quality, coherence, and integration of position keeping systems," was crucial in counteracting some of these causes. "Effective position keeping" it said could also address employees trying to conceal losses and that "oversight mechanisms" which integrated monitoring, governance, and compliance requirements into a "holistic, focused, and practical framework," needed to be put in place.

Arguably however, there is only so much technology can do, and at some point a human needs to intervene or manage the process in order to prevent people who are clever enough from fooling or overriding internal risk control procedures and systems.

This is borne out by an independent report, which reportedly concluded that while risk control procedures were followed, "compliance officers rarely went beyond routine checks and did not inform managers of anomalies." According to the independent report, 75 warning signs on the activities of rogue trader Jerome Kerviel, were overlooked.

Who will buy?

It is no secret that Larry Ellison, Oracle's CEO is hell bent on world domination, and the other day I had the pleasure of seeing just how determined the man is to provide the complete software stack covering almost every permutation of financial services.

Over lunch an Oracle exec presented me with a 'place mat' - which I proceeded to eat my lunch on - demonstrating Oracle/i-flex solutions' banking footprint across retail, commercial and private wealth management.

With no fewer than 38 acquisitions under his belt, in the next issue of financial-i magazine, we look at the ramifications of Oracle's 'stack' approach for financial service providers.

Critics say that IBM tried it in the 1970s but failed. It is a question of who will buy, and of course with any software vendor that is so acquisitive in nature, customers are always going to be concerned about how well integrated its solutions are. Oracle's Fusion Middleware is an effort to pull the applications together, and the Oracle execs I met with were insistent that any company acquired by Oracle soon becomes part of the fold.

When it comes to Oracle/i-flex's existing banking footprint, most of the boxes on the place mat representing the customer experience, product and transaction processing, master data management, corporate admin, compliance, risk-based monitoring, analytics platforms and enterprise technology, were greyed out, meaning that Oracle already occupied that space.

The executive indicated that the white boxes were where Oracle would make its next acquisitive strike; in areas such as trade processing, securities trading, derivatives pricing, Lock Box, custody and structured derivatives.

Interestingly, Ellison has deep pockets and has financed acquisitions without having to resort to injections of private equity capital. The latest target is BEA Systems, which Oracle appears to be acquiring for its capital markets customer base.

Any guesses where Ellison is likely to strike next? But it seems not all banks are buying the stack approach. No bank is going to want to lock themselves into a single vendor, although the pace with which Oracle is acquiring companies they may be forced to. Additionally, some of the bigger banks still tend to favour building proprietary solutions in-house rather than buying something off-the-shelf.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sovereign funds and banks

Once the target of various takeover rumours, Barclays now appears to be setting its sights on filling the gap left by the US investment banks that have suffered billions in write downs associated with subprime losses.

Interestingly, a question I have been asking in recent weeks, is what would have happened if sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) from Singapore and Kuwait had not bailed out some of the American banks eager to replenish their liquidity following such massive write downs?

The answers have been varied, but the bail outs themselves signify a new world order that is emerging, or as McKinsey likes to refer to the sovereign wealth funds, they are new 'power brokers' alongside hedge funds and private equity.

In fact, estimates suggest that sovereign wealth funds, while they may have considerable sums to invest, are not as big as say the Top 10 asset managers who are valued at $13.4 trillion, followed by the Top 10 central banks with reserves worth $4.4 trillion, the Top 10 pension funds valued at $2.9 trillion, and the Top 10 SWFs valued at $2.3 trillion.

But regardless of where SWFs sit in the financial pecking order, the sentiment seems to be that without the investments from Kuwait Investment Authority, Temasek Holdings and other SWFs, that the major US banks would have been forced to consolidate.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why settle for less, say Deloitte

After the initial exuberance had died down, most companies that had embarked on major IT or business process outsourcing projects discovered that there were 'hidden costs' in outsourcing to a third party provider.

As time and experience of outsourcing wore on, companies realised it was not simply a case of outsourcing a process to a third party and watching the cost savings pour in. The outsourcing process itself needed to be managed, monitored and governed, which entailed costs in and of itself.

Well Deloitte has just published some interesting findings on outsourcing based on its survey of 300 executives involved in outsourcing worldwide. More than 80% of respondents to its survey indicated a return on their investment of more than 25%.

However, while 70% said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their outsourcing. 39% said they had terminated at least one contract, and 50% of those that reported dissatisfaction with outsourcing had brought the process back in-house. In the first year of the contract, 61% of firms also indicated that they had "escalated problems" to senior management.

Therein perhaps lies the greatest challenge for both outsourcers and the firms that employ them, demonstrating not only one-off process improvements, but ongoing improvements on a continuous basis that satisfies customers' expectations.

As Deloitte's findings bear out, firms that outsource while financially gratified, would like to see a lot more benefits stem from the arrangement in terms of access to new ideas and innovation and better quality communications.

More than 30% wished they had spent more time on evaluating vendors before signing contracts, and if they had their time over again, almost 50% said they would have better defined service levels in line with their business goals, which just goes to show that a lot of firms have rushed into outsourcing mesmerised by the potential cost savings, without considering the processes, workflow and governance that needs to be put in place to ensure a better outsourcing experience.

So those businesses thinking that outsourcing or offshoring may be the solution to all their problems, particularly in an economic downturn when reducing costs is paramount, think again. Outsourcing is not a panacea and often entails 'hidden costs' which need to be considered in the overall cost/benefit analysis.

Martyn Hart, chairman of the UK National Outsourcing Association, says we could see the nature of outsourcing deals change in light of a recession. "In the past couple of years the ‘mega-deal’ has largely been consigned to the outsourcing scrap heap, in favour of multi-shoring and choosing separate suppliers for each process. Organisations will have to balance how to do this in the most cost effective manner," he says.

With mega-outsourcing deals a thing of the past, fixed price contracts are also likely to be abandoned for a more utility-based approach based on cost per unit.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Still miffed by MiFID?

I stole the title for this post from a panel discussion at Complinet's Compliance Conference in London today.

Judging by the number of people in the room (it was half full) they may not be that miffed about MiFID, or perhaps as most of the audience were risk and compliance officers, having to comply with non-prescriptive regulations is par for course.

Admittedly I walked in halfway through the debate, but judging by questions asked by the audience, it would appear that the Financial Service Authority's (FSA) principles-based approach to regulation, including MiFID, is causing consternation amongst risk and compliance officers, who would prefer a more prescriptive rules-based approach.

One compliance consultant chipped said that if firms went out and said what they think the rules mean (as they pertain to MiFID, then that would create a "stake in the ground," which is the safe way to develop compliance in a principles-based world.

Deborah Sabalot, a regulatory consultant, begged to differ however. She reminded the gathered risk, compliance and audit staff that the great thing about MiFID is that it was not non-prescriptive - in other words it gave firms the flexibility to design their own systems instead of being locked into something that was not of their making.

Still it didn't sound like that was what compliance officers wanted to hear. It seemed to be more a case of give us a set of rules we need to comply with and we can work with that, rather than making it up as we go along.

That may be the view of MiFID across the board, however, in the front office where the trading that MiFID regulates is executed, some firms clearly see MiFID as an opportunity to set their own benchmarks particularly around aspects of the regulation such as best execution.

However, for those that prefer the certainty of a prescriptive rules-based world, some form of best practice appears to be emerging, albeit slowly. Although it may take 12 to 18 months before firms' application of best execution under MiFID beds down, one spokesperson from UBS investment bank said any firm that takes a simplistic approach to execution by executing all of its trades on a single venue, are likely to find themselves under regulatory scrutiny.

That is pretty much a 'no brainer,' but other investment bankers raised concerns about additional taping requirements from CESR and the FSA and the extension of MiFID to commodities.

Lyndon Nelson, head of risk at the FSA, conceded it had been a difficult time for the organisation, particularly in view of the Northern Rock affair which it has received considerable flack over. Non-believers of a principles-based approach to regulation are likely to say that Northern Rock highlights the pitfalls of a principles-based approach to regulation.

However, Nelson said the FSA intended to stick to its non-prescriptive guns, albeit gaining some valuable lessons along the way from the Northern Rock Affair, and where requested, he said the FSA would provide market guidance by publishing more information gleaned from its risk assessment of firms, which could then be used by their peers to benchmark themselves against.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A new world order

Oh how the mighty have fallen. According to a Bloomberg report, Chinese banks have toppled Citi from the top of the league tables based on market value.

Citi, which had long occupied the top position based on market cap, has been superseded by Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China Construction Bank and Bank of China. The three biggest Chinese banks are valued at $608 billion, says Bloomberg, compared to $496 billion for Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Citi.

ICBC leads the tables with a market value of $277 billion, $82 billion more than Bank of America, which is in second place, followed by HSBC in third place ahead of China Construction Bank and Wells Fargo, according to Bloomberg data. Citi is now in seventh position. Yet, it was only five years ago that 13 American banks featured in the top 20 banks by market cap.