From the November 2008 issue of Treasury & Risk magazine

Thinking the Unthinkable

Most companies by now have well established risk management programs, but Jonathan York, vice president of SunGard BancWare, says finance and treasury departments may be planning for the wrong risks. The trouble, says York, is that people only consider plausible risk scenarios, while the recent collapse of leading financial institutions and the subsequent global credit freeze was a risk scenario almost nobody contemplated. Even now, most treasurers are scrambling to ensure day-to-day liquidity, he says. Understandable, but they eventually must plan for future extreme scenarios. Take, for example, a change in foreign government appetites for U.S. treasuries as a refuge for currency reserves. This, he warns, would result in major shifts in exchange and interest rates, "which could have potentially very negative implications for the U.S. economy."

York praises companies, which early in the credit crisis, drew down credit lines well ahead of their daily needs. Those that didn't, turned to their lines later--only to find them frozen. "People who thought they had diverse contingency lines of credit found that they tended to all vanish at the same time." This, he says, shows the importance of having more diverse sources of such credit lines--for example, a geographic mix of large and smaller banks.

Some companies are also reconsidering the appropriate degree of leverage. "For 30 years or so," York explains, "there has been a philosophy that you should be well leveraged to improve the return on equity to investors." The problem, he says, is that investors have only considered one side of the equation. "They weren't thinking about the survival risk to companies posed by overleveraging, and that there could be a shareholder benefit in reducing leverage and ROE."

Things could get worse. "If any loopholes developed in the standard terms and conditions that credit default swap contracts are traded under, the picture of how hedged organizations are from a credit perspective would change dramatically, which would freeze markets even further," York warns. Moreover, he says, government pockets aren't bottomless. "Any hint that the cost of the capital injections into the market might have an effect on Treasury creditworthiness would be catastrophic."

In planning for such unlikely but serious events, companies can't simply replay what just happened. "They need to plan for what might happen, not just to fight the last war," he warns.

Just hope everyone isn't thinking alike. "If everyone has the same goals," warns York, "there is no competing behavior and the system is unstable."

Unfortunately, he adds, "a lot of developments in the markets and the regulatory environment have encouraged just this homogenization of perspective."