The Investment Banking Model Is Flawed

Question: Is the investment banking model fundamentally flawed?  

Robert Engle:
My way of understanding this financial crisis is in terms of two different observations.  One is that risk managers and investment bankers and actually, all kinds of investors took on more risk than they expected.  So there was a failure of risk management.  There was a failure to recognize how much risk there was in some of these securities that people bought. 

But a second and perhaps more important point is that many of these same people were paid very well to ignore the risks, and so there are incentives which are – which distort our ability to measure risk.  That is, many times we’re not risking our own money, we’re risking somebody else's money, or maybe that someone is going to back stop or downside, but we still get the upside.  There are a lot of ways that investment banking models work, but these risks are not internalized by the people that are taking them.  And so, I think that’s something that investment banks have worried about for a long time and are continuing to worry about, but it’s not an easy solution when you have lots of people betting the company’s money, how do you really allocate those risks?  How do you make sure that the people that take the risks are feeling the risks in an appropriate kind of fashion?

Question: Do you agree with author Nassim Taleb that we put too much faith in financial experts?

Robert Engle: Oh well I would agree with that.  I don’t agree – I agree with a lot of the points in Taleb’s book, but I don’t agree with many of his conclusions.  It seems to me that he rightly points out that risk managers miss a lot of the risks, but the conclusion is that he draws, is that we should abandon risk management, whereas my conclusion is we should improve it.  I don’t see what the alternative to risk management is.  If it’s just getting rid of the models and instead using the smart people who can figure it out?  How do you train them?  What do you teach them?  Do you just put them in a cockpit and let them stumble for 10 years of their life and then after that they’re good at it?  I think that **** have gotten so complicated that we need risk management, but we just need to make it better.  We need to be able to understand better where these risks are coming from. 

And I think actually one of the – coming back to one of your previous points about investment strategies.  One of the things we might come out of this crisis and I think that Nassim is sort of an example of this as well is that we might invest a part of our assets in portfolios that we don’t expect to do well not, but we would expect them to do well if we have another crisis.  And this is a different way of thinking about asset allocation.  It’s an old idea in economics, but it hasn’t’ really been at the center of much investment analysis, but I think now there’s a lot of interest in these so called hedge portfolios which will out perform in a crisis.  I mean, we’ve always had gold bugs, but now we sort of realize that Treasure Bills might be in the same category.  And we have derivatives like credit default swaps which are in this category, and we have derivatives like volatilities that are actually an asset class that we can invest in which are now – would out perform if we have another financial crisis.

And so thinking about these different assets and I should say, this extends to lots of other kinds of long term risks, for example, if we think about the long term risks of global warming.  You know, some of the portfolios we might consider buying are portfolios which would do especially well if we have an economy-wide, or I mean, a global climate change that impacts us very negatively there are some companies that will do well, and so it might make sense to hold some of those in your portfolio. 

Recorded May 25, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

Investment banks encourage faulty risk management because the risks are "not internalized by the people that are taking them."

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