Risky Business

For these cautious managers, your risk is their reward.

In risky times, who better to hang out with than a risk manager? Or how about 400 risk managers? For three days in mid-February, as global tensions mount and Americans stockpile duct tape, plastic sheeting, bottled water, canned soup, and portable radios, mid-town Manhattan has become, arguably, the safest spot on earth. The Global Association of Risk Professionals -- aka GARP -- is in town.

This is a gathering of people who assess and mitigate risk for a living: dark-suited bankers, operations experts, and energy traders. Bad news for the rest of us means a paycheck for them. And so, while the mood at GARP's fourth-annual conference is cautious -- as you'd expect -- it is also upbeat. Perhaps cautiously upbeat. In the face of war, corporate scandal, and recession, this is a group clearly enjoying a moment in the sun.

"This is our time," crows Bill Martin, global head of investment risk for Invesco and chairman of GARP's board of trustees. Exactly how risky are things right now? The GARP consensus is, riskier than they used to be. "I think volatility will continue to be quite high," says Maureen Miskovic, senior adviser at Eurasia Group, a political risk-analysis firm. "It doesn't feel to me like there will be a recovery soon."

How, then, to manage risk in a riskier world? Miskovic, whose firm measures political stability, offers a few broad pointers. "If you're going to panic," she says, "panic early. Panicking late is bad." Another rule to remember: "Things tend to go wrong sequentially. If something goes wrong, put your hands to the pump, because there's a good chance something else will happen."

More to the point, attendees argue, the profession must develop better measures of business risk that are relevant and understood across different sorts of activities. Michael Hofmann, chief risk officer at energy trader Koch industries, proposes "capital risk" as a crucial barometer. Basically, that's the amount of capital that had to be put at risk to sustain a business.

And in this new era of corporate accountability, operating executives have to understand exactly what their business risks are. Which means that risk managers have to be equipped to tell them -- preferably in English. "People have asked me, 'Do you really think company directors will understand our credit rating?' " says William McDonough, outgoing president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "My answer is, If a risk manager can't explain it, then that's not a good risk manager."

The folks in the dark suits take McDonough's chiding in stride. After all, he has announced that he'll be leaving his job soon. But risk managers -- well, there will always be risk, won't there? "I think," one risk manager says guardedly, "that people are paying more attention to us." Another cautiously upbeat statement.

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