Monday, June 14, 2010

Rick Bookstaber: Common Sense Crisis Risk Management

Found via Simoleon Sense.

Unfortunately, although we can hope that this sort of information will end up with those regulating the markets, it is beyond the realm of anyone in the private sector. But here are a few common sense things we know about the way markets behave during a crisis:

Volatility goes up because everyone is jumpy, so any new piece of information leads to a big reaction, and also because there are fewer people willing to step up as liquidity providers, so prices have to move more to elicit the other side of the trade.

Correlations rise because people don’t care much about the subtle characteristics of one instrument versus another. Everything is either high risk or low risk, high liquidity or low liquidity. I think of the market during a crisis like in high energy physics, where matter melds into a homogeneous plasma when the heat gets turned up.

Because liquidity becomes critical, the less liquid markets – emerging markets, low cap stocks and the like – take it on the chin more than their more liquid cousins.

(Oh, and what about gold? Sometimes it responds, sometimes it doesn't. There is nothing intrinsic about gold that makes it part of the crisis/no-crisis equation. If it is a flavor-of-the-month market, it will respond positively, otherwise, it will simply act like a commodity, responding to economics).

Knowing this, it is not hard to take steps to protect against a crisis. Just move away from equities, avoid being short volatility, stay away from credit-laden debt, focus on the liquid markets, and watch those carry trades. Also, don’t trust diversification, because those low correlations you are depending on will not be there when it matters.


It might be reasonable to consider crises as hundred year flood events if we mistakenly treated them as being drawn from the same distribution as those normal market days. But they are not. It is following a different dynamic, a dynamic that we have seen enough to become familiar with. People sometimes look at periods of market crisis in the context of a regime switching model, and this gets more to the point. There are the normal times and then there are the crisis times. But what I am suggesting above is that there are (at least) three regimes. There are the crisis times, the normal times, and the pre-crisis times. The transition generally is not from normal to crisis, but rather from pre-crisis to crisis. And the move from the pre-crisis to the crisis regime is more gut-wrenching because in almost every dimension things are moving from one extreme to another.

The killer is that what protects you in a crisis is also what leaves money on the table pre-crisis. The best trades and market positions in the pre-crisis regime are the ones that cause the greatest losses in the crisis. The result is that those who take defensive actions will under-perform. So the the only way to stay in the game is to be as bold in the face of the crisis risk as others. As a result, in a variant of Gresham's Law, imprudence will drive out prudence.