While interest rates remain steady, change in Washington often means change in perspective and direction. If the stimulus bill is passed, what happens if the market starts to feel interest rate pressure again? Let’s look back to the a recent interest rate market event and how risk managers were able to react to it.  

The two months of June and July of 2019 brought unforeseen volatility into the interest rate arena. During this period, the Federal Reserve did an ‘about face’, regarding the direction of interest rates in the US. This came as an unwelcome surprise to market participants as most traders, speculators and hedgers were prepared for a rising or unchanged interest rate environment, with very little attention paid to the thought of declining interest rates. This group- think caused a ‘rush to exits’ to reverse or close out existing positions.  

Market risk managers are tasked with evaluating and diffusing these situations on a daily basis. A proactive risk manager will attempt to determine the outcome of potential events before they occur. They view the risk outside the ‘groupthink’ box and consider what happens if the market behaves in a manner 180 degrees removed from the consensus expectation.

The tools used to expose and mitigate these events are often known as ‘what if’ stressing scenarios. This practice allows risk managers to view the outcome of yield curve shifts and then determine if the risk exceeds the benefit of holding the position. Traders are famous for advocating on behalf of their positions and for stating “that won’t happen” when a risk manager poses an assumption that impact the trader’s position. However, it is imperative the risk manager know the answer to the question “what if it does happen?” prior to the event.

Market participants have an aggregate idea of the potential outcome when the market behaves ‘normally’. The key goal of risk management is to identify the outliers to ‘normal’ and then determine if the risk taken is warranted based on the probability of a ‘non-normal’ outcome.

Identifying the Negative Outcomes

Using post-trade stressing tools, risk managers create ‘what if’ scenarios to determine the potential profit/loss of: a steepening/flattening of the yield curve during rising/declining rate environments, an inverted yield curve during a rising/declining rate environment, a spike/dip in short-term rates due to a geopolitical event and/or eroding liquidity levels, but to name a few. These scenarios may be contrary to the current market wisdom at any point in time, but they must be evaluated daily as the associated risk needs to be identified before the ‘non-normal’ events are set in motion.

The examples given above pertain to positions containing only underlying securities. What happens if options are added to these positions or if these positions/strategies are created entirely out of options? This would introduce entirely new categories of risk and would require the risk manager to consider the following:

  • Shocking relative volatility levels of contracts in a particular segment of the yield curve (all of the monthly contracts of the 10yr T-note, for example), as well as across the entire yield curve (30yr,10yr, 5yr, 2yr, Eurodollars, Fed Funds)
  • Shocking volatility shapes (skew) on each piece of the yield curve as well as across the entire yield curve.
  • Calculating the theta of holding these positions each day and evaluating the effect of option expiration dates on the option behavior (for example, does this option expire before the upcoming Fed Meeting but others do not?).

The complexity of managing multi-dimensional risk (price/time/volatility/skew) calls for robust ‘what if’ tools that can simulate potential market events. These risks are real and should be evaluated as often as the ‘normal’ market expectation. Without the proper tools at his/her disposal, the risk manager is essentially driving while wearing a blindfold.

Last week, I received my American Airlines AAdvantage Frequent Flier statement. The airline was nice enough to let me know that after averaging flying 148,709 miles each year over the past ten years, I have traveled 0 miles on 0 trips in the past twelve months.

No business trips, no holiday travel, no family get-togethers. Just one example of the immense change that 2020 and now 2021 have brought upon all of us.  

Even with all that change, we have been pleased with how efficient KRM22 is working in a de-centralized, travel-restricted environment. Our ability to support clients, add new products, build new features, sell, and onboard new customers have all kept pace and even exceeded our expectations.    

While happy with how KRM22 is working, I thought I would spend time discovering the impact of working from home on the risk teams we support. I reached out to several of our customers over the past few weeks and learned quite a bit.  

No doubt the overriding feedback had to do with the increased reliance upon systems. The sometimes-fragile relationship between the world of home and office computing was solidified early in the pandemic by all.  Some groups set up special IT support teams for “home offices” and shipped standardized modems and cellular-based back-up internet systems to their employees.  

Collaboration software became a new standard for all. New rules were quickly adopted on the use of video and chat features. The overwhelming dependence on Zoom and Teams meetings have become critical to success. But those changes have come with new challenges. Some are concerned that a “business as usual” approach has taken permanent hold. Managers are very concerned that creativity and innovation are being stifled.    

Many reported a lack of agility in their organizations and the ability to cover up “real issues” behind “process” and a “lack of accountability”. Reports of poor performers being able to “hide” seem to be exacerbated in this new environment. The process of giving feedback toward performance improvement is difficult enough in normal settings, even more so in this new environment.  

Blurring the lines between home and office is increasingly difficult. While the “always-on” home office environment has worked well to quickly react to major market moves and key client issues, team “burn-out” and making sure resources have proper downtime is of key concern. One executive said he had to force himself into a new time management discipline as it is just too easy to “get up, start working in your PJs and forgetting to pause until the US market close.”  

No doubt work/life balance has a new meaning for our risk teams. Work is no longer a “place we go to” but “what we do”.    

No one surveyed ever thought this process would still be going on well into 2021 when the crises started last year. No one seems to be too sure how, when, or if this ends or if it does what that even means?    

One spoke about how their bank’s infrastructure team has spent the last decade or so shrinking the size of their workplace to fit in multiple resources where one used to exist. They could not conceive the bank having enough space to bring people back if they had to return to an environment that gave people “proper distance” from each other.    

Some opined a future with a completely new work environment.    

One envisioned a “university-like setting” where they would come and go and organize into groups as required. Others saw the next office environment to be exclusive for meetings and group communication sessions while leaving individual contributions to the home environment. Some just thought they would return to what they had before.    

The biggest takeaway from all these discussions is two things. First, everyone I spoke to is honestly looking forward to changing their current situation.  Second, there is nothing stronger than the connection we make together, as humans. The lost office environment means a loss in human-to-human touch. The laughs, emotions, clearing the air, engaging in productive “what ifs” are all part of a work environment that is as important to a risk team as any other.  

In an age where funding Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is the rage of all our new SPACS (more on that in a future issue), finding ways to keep our human connection vibrant while on our way to the next “new normal” is the key to managing risk from home.

We need that connection to inspire, learn, and fuel growth. Plants grown in isolation don’t thrive like plants grown in a field.  

We need our fields back – hopefully, we can get them soon.