Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

Monthly Archives: March 2019

Learning from Crises

Last week, Anwer S. Ahmed, Brant E. Christensen, Adam J. Olson and Christopher G. Yust posted a summary of their research on how banks with leaders experienced in past crises fared in global financial crisis (GFC). Their conclusion is:

We find that banks led by executives and directors with past crisis experience had significantly higher ROA before and during the GFC, fewer failures during the GFC, lower risk-weighted assets in the GFC, less exposure to real estate loans both before and during the GFC, timelier loan loss provisions in the GFC, and more persistent earnings before and during the GFC.

There are two ways of looking at this result. At the micro level, organizations should try to recruit managers with such experience. More important in my view is the macro level implication: it is good for society to have a large pool of managers with past crisis experience. That would ensure that the entire financial system copes better with new crises. But for that to happen, we need crises (at least mild crises) to happen with some degree of regularity.

Already, a decade after the GFC, I think a whole generation of traders and bankers have entered the financial system who have no first hand knowledge of dealing with a crisis. All that they have seen is a financial market numbed by ultra loose monetary policy and policy-puts. Their experience so far is that large economic and geo-political shocks (Brexit or the US-China trade war) have very mild and transient effects on market prices and volatility. The complacency of this generation is probably balanced by the battle scarred veterans who dominate the senior ranks of most banks. But over a period of time, many of these crisis-experienced leaders will retire or leave. It is quite likely that when the next big crisis comes along, there will be a shortage of crisis experience in the trenches.

Outside of finance, it is well understood that preventing small crises is a bad idea: frequent small earthquakes are better than an occasional big one; periodic restricted forest fires are preferred to one rare but big conflagration, and so on. In finance, there is a reluctance to permit even small failures. Regulators and policy makers are rewarded for moving swiftly to “solve” mini-crises. The tragedy is that this leaves institutions, individuals (and even regulators) ill equipped to cope with the big crises when they come.


Inverting the intermediary theory of asset pricing

In the last few years, the intermediary theory of asset pricing has emerged as a single factor model of asset pricing that does as well as the standard four factor model and thus subsumes the size, value and momentum factors (Adrian, T., Etula, E., & Muir, T. (2014). Financial intermediaries and the cross‐section of asset returns. The Journal of Finance, 69(6), 2557-2596). The theoretical justification for this model is that since financial intermediaries are the marginal buyers of many assets, their marginal value of wealth is a more relevant stochastic discount factor than that of a representative consumer. Though the idea that leverage is a good proxy for marginal value of wealth strains credulity, the empirical results seem quite strong, and there is some case to be made that the shadow price of a leverage constraint is related to the marginal value of wealth.

I see two problems with this. First of all, the major risk factors (like Momentum, Value, Carry and BAB) have been demonstrated in two centuries of data (1799-2016) from across all major world markets (Baltussen, Guido and Swinkels, Laurens and van Vliet, Pim, Global Factor Premiums (January 31, 2019). Available at SSRN: It is evident that the structure of financial intermediation has changed beyond recognition over the last two centuries; for example, 19th Century giants like the Rothschilds operated with far lower levels of leverage than modern security dealers, and were in fact more principals than intermediaries. If the risk factors are solely due to intermediary leverage constraints, I would not expect to see such strong Sharpe ratios for the risk factors in the 19th Century data.

Second, there is a vertical split within the intermediary theory itself. He, Kelly and Manela presented a competing theory (Intermediary asset pricing: New evidence from many asset classes. Journal of Financial Economics, 2017, 126(1), 1-35) with drastically different results. I sometimes joke that Adrian, Etula & Muir (AEM) and He, Kelly & Manela (HKM) refute each other and so there is nothing more to be said. The first direct contradiction is that AEM find a positive price of risk for leverage, while HKM find a positive price of risk for the capital ratio (which is the reciprocal of leverage). Second, HKM get their nice results when they measure capital of the primary dealers at the holding company level unlike AEM who measure security dealer leverage at the unit level. Finally, AEM find book leverage to be more important, but for HKM, it is the market value capital ratio that is relevant.

I am veering around to the view that risk factors are not priced because of intermediary leverage constraints, but it is the other way around. Factor risk premiums have very long and deep drawdowns (for India, the drawdown plots are available at As Cliff Asness put it,

I say “This strategy works.” I mean “in the cowardly statistician fashion.” It works two out of three years for a hundred years. We get small p-values, large t-statistics, if anyone likes those kind of numbers out there. We’re reasonably sure the average return is positive. It has horrible streaks within that of not working. If your car worked like this, you’d fire your mechanic, if it worked like I use that word.

So it is easier to harvest factor premiums if you are gambling with other people’s money especially with a taxpayer backstop for extreme tail events. Since Too Big to Fail (TBTF) banks are ideal candidates for doing this, you could well see significant correlations between the factors and the capital/leverage of these banks, but these correlations might be very sensitive to the measurement procedures that you use. In short, perhaps, we need to invert the intermediary theory of asset pricing.

When do you sell your best businesses?

The traditional recipe for reducing the leverage of an over indebted business conglomerate is to (a) sell non core peripheral unviable businesses, and (b) focus on improving the cash flows of the core profitable businesses. Most companies tend to do this, at least after they have gone past the stage of denial and business as usual.

But there is an alternative view expressed most forcefully two decades ago by a senior Korean government official in response to a restructuring proposal submitted by the Daewoo group: you do not reduce debt by selling unviable business, you do it by selling profitable businesses. (This statement most probably came from the Korean Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) then led by the no-nonsense Lee Hun Jai, but I am not now able to trace this quote though the tussle between Daewoo and the government was well covered in the international press.)

I do recall one company that sold its best business without any prodding from creditors or government: RJR Nabisco under the private equity group KKR. Way back in 1995, with the tobacco business in the doldrums (as a result of Marlboro_Friday and tobacco litigation), RJR sold a part of the more attractive food business in a public issue, and used the proceeds to pay off some of its humongous debt. Apparently, the reason for not selling off the entire food business was legal advice that this could expose the board members to liability for fraudulent conveyance. (Baker & Smith discuss this episode in some detail in Chapter 4 of their book on KKR – The new financial capitalists: Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and the creation of corporate value. Cambridge University Press, 1998).

There are two arguments in favour of the radical approach of selling your best businesses to reduce debt. The first is that deleveraging is often carried out under acute time pressure and it is the good businesses that can be sold quickly and easily. Dilly dallying over deleveraging can quickly take things out of the control of management, and potentially lead to the complete dismantling and liquidation of the group as happened to Daewoo. The second argument is that financial stress at the conglomerate level acts as a drag on the good businesses that might need capital to grow or might need strong balance sheets to retain customer confidence and loyalty. In times of financial stringency, the functioning of the internal capital markets within the conglomerate becomes impaired and the good businesses tend to suffer the most. When internal capital markets start prioritizing survival over growth, good businesses should be rapidly migrated to stronger balance sheets that can both preserve value and support growth.

Many business groups in India are today trying to deleverage in response to changes in the legal regime that empower creditors, but they are still focused on selling their bad businesses. The risk is that this may prove too little, too late. At least some of them should consider the heretical idea of selling their crown jewels.

Globally, perhaps the largest conglomerate that needs to evaluate the strategy of selling its best business is GE. The aviation business is the crown jewel that is at risk from the troubles in the conglomerate. A year ago, John Hempton explained why this business needs a pristine balance sheet: whoever buys a plane powered by a GE engine needs to be confident that GE will be around and solvent in 40 years to actually maintain that engine. Moreover, the business needs massive investment in research and development, and the ability of a struggling GE to do this might be questionable. John Hempton proposed an equity raising as the solution, but the window for that might be slipping away as the share price continues to slide.

In times of stress, companies need level headed managers who can take rational decisions without being swayed by a maudlin attachment to their crown jewels.

Ignoring operational risk

Operational risk has always been less glamorous compared to market risk, interest rate risk and credit risk which are all now dominated by sophisticated mathematical models and apparent analytical rigour. Regulators too are uncomfortable dealing with operational risk because of its judgemental nature. Yesterday, for example, the US Federal Reserve Board announced that the largest US banks would no longer be subject to the “qualitative objection” which was the rubric under which it dealt with operational risk (see pages 13-14 of the summary instructions).

The reality however is that in big financial institutions with large well diversified portfolios, most risk management failures involve operational risk. This was true for example of JP Morgan’s London Whale, of the Nirav Modi scam at Punjab National Bank, of Nick Leeson, and many other cases. Even in the Global Financial Crisis, many of the largest losses were due as much to operational risk as to systemic events (which is why some banks had much larger losses than others).

Chernobai, Ozdagli and Wang have a paper showing that operational risk is aggravated for large and complex institutions (Business Complexity and Risk Management: Evidence from Operational Risk Events in U.S. Bank Holding Companies (December 18, 2018). Available at SSRN). They show that operational risk increased significantly when the business complexity of banks increased and provide evidence that this results from managerial failure rather than strategic risk taking. A year ago, I wrote on this blog that

banks are so opaque that even insiders cannot see through the opacity when bad things happen … Even a very competent chief executive can be clueless about some activities in a corner of the bank that have the potential to bring down the bank or at least cause severe losses.

Ignoring operational risks for the largest and most complex banks because it is too qualitative and judgemental does not appear to me to be a very good idea.