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The Riskiest Careers in Financial Services, Finally Rewarded

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Financial services companies are at last treating their chief risk officers like adults. No more sitting at the kid’s table when the grownups get together to talk strategy or make big decisions.

The four largest U.S. banks – JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo – raised the profile of their CROs quite a bit after the 2008 crisis. Following recommended best practices, all four risk managers report to their CEO directly and are members of the banks’ operating or executive committees.

It was widely reported that Bank of America’s former CRO, Bruce Thompson, was the highest paid executive at the bank in 2010, earning more than even CEO Brian Moynihan. Much of that compensation came from his performance as head of global capital markets at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch unit in 2009. But the numbers were dramatic and Thompson was promoted this year to B of A’s chief financial officer. In general, CRO pay and professional possibilities have increased substantially in the last 10 years.

Late last year the Federal Reserve Board issued proposed standards and early remediation requirements for risk management under the Dodd-Frank Act. Publicly traded bank holding companies with $10 billion or more in total consolidated assets must establish a risk committee of the board of directors that is responsible for oversight of enterprise-wide risk management. The risk committee must be comprised of an appropriate number of independent directors and include at least one risk management expert.

The proposal would require all covered companies to implement robust enterprise-wide risk management practices implemented by a chief risk officer with the appropriate level of independence, expertise, and stature in the organization in conjunction with the risk committee of the board.

It’s difficult for me to imagine a new generation of systemically important financial services company CEOs without strong risk management experience. Independent board members with risk management experience will also be in demand. The current generation of CROs is gaining the experience to lead as CEOs and board members in today’s challenging market and regulatory environment.

Stewart Goldman, a senior client partner at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, tells me there’s a ''scarcity'' of candidates with the ''ideal skill set'' to be chief risk officers, so institutions are considering people with a broader range of backgrounds to fill the post.

A Chief Risk Officer who does a good job mitigating risk while optimizing opportunities can now have significant stature and sway. But, conversely, that new prominence gives shareholders, regulators, and the media an easy target for ridicule after a corporate stumble or failure.

MF Global’s seemingly sudden and spectacular crash in October sent journalists and angry customers looking for someone to blame. Chairman and CEO Jon Corzine made leveraged bets on sovereign debt using repo-to-maturity trades that moved the transactions off the balance sheet. When inquiring minds asked  who was managing risk, fingers wagged at risk officer Michael Stockman, a recent Corzine hire.

His predecessor in that job, Michael Roseman, who reported to former MF Global CEO Bernie Dan directly and had broad responsibility, was pushed out of MF Global early last year after pushing back on Corzine over the trades. Roseman thought Corzine’s trades introduced unacceptably high concentration and liquidity risk.

Despite having the same title, Stockman had ''less authority'' and limited access to the board, according to a report in The New York Times. Stockman was Chief Risk Officer for the American branch of UBS until 2008 and teaches risk management at Dartmouth. Stockman reported to COO Brad Abelow, not Corzine directly. Stockman spent his time putting Corzine’s PowerPoint slides together instead of holding the MF Global chief sovereign risk trader Corzine’s feet to the fire on risk.

Over at UBS, an experienced Chief Risk Officer, Maureen Miskovic, took the blame after an embarrassing lapse in controls over a proprietary trader caused a $2 billion dollar loss.

BusinessWeek quoted a research note from Christopher Wheeler, a London-based analyst at Mediobanca SpA that pinned the responsibility for the UBS loss on Miskovic in spite of her short tenure: ''With this appointment and the previous chief risk officer leaving, UBS confirms that risk management procedures were far from perfect.''

Miskovic, head of risk management at State Street Bank from 2008 to 2010 and Chief Risk Officer of Lehman Brothers from 1996 to 2002, became Chief Risk Officer of UBS in early 2011. She left UBS in December after less than a year in the job.

None of this should discourage anyone with smarts, integrity and tenacity from pursuing the risk management career track. The experience is so needed that even an ex-Lehman CRO can get another job.

Francine McKenna writes the blog re: The Auditors, about the Big Four accounting firms. She worked in consulting, professional services, accounting and financial management for more than 25 years.

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Comments (2)
A few years ago a risk management staffer at one of the big four (surviving) banks told me about how during the housing boom his group was an afterthought to top management. The renewed focus on risk management is to be lauded--with a caveat. Management-by-numbers has distinct limits. Consider how in 2002 the Sarbanes-Oxley Act fought he previous war by requiring board quotas for 'independents,' audit experts and the like. It didn't exactly lead to sagacious governance, given the financial debacle that followed. Neil Weinberg, Editor in Chief, American Banker.
Posted by Neil Weinberg | Friday, January 20 2012 at 1:01PM ET
@Neil W

So true. I'm not much for proscriptive, pure model-driven decision making. Nor am I a big fan of quotas for things like board diversity. Independence on a board, especially for the audit and compensation committee, is crucial. But risk committees are the "new black". The focus on risk management should be there but it needs to be thoughtful, based on experience and judgment and, for systemically important institutions, supported in spite of impact on profits.
Posted by Francine McKenna | Sunday, January 22 2012 at 1:08PM ET
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