The world learned some important lessons last year about the devastating impact risk can have on everything from financial assets to the housing market. The big question is: will we take the necessary actions to tame this unpredictable beast?
According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., there were 135 bank failures in the U.S. in 2009. By comparison, 25 failed in 2008 — almost all of them in the second half of the year — and three failed between 2005 and 2007.
That's the tricky thing about risk — if you're not careful, it will catch up to you all at once. You might cross the street without looking a dozen times without incident, but the 13th time could be a different story. In 2009, we got hit by the risk equivalent of a Mack truck.
But risk isn't just the province of banks and insurance companies. It doesn't exist only in loan portfolios and actuarial tables. Risk is everywhere. It informs everything we do. And, in today's interconnected world, unmanaged risk has more power than ever to cause harm.
One has only to survey the past few years to see how dangerous the world can be: Hurricane Katrina, terrorism, the rise of identity theft, the subprime mortgage crisis, the current gut-wrenching recession.
In the business world, the list of risks is even more expansive: product-liability issues, environmental pollution, breakdowns on the production line, market and financial risks and so on.
Unfortunately, in a recent survey of chief financial officers, almost half admitted that they were not well prepared to deal with the material risks they had confronted in the past three years. In other words, they were blindsided.
It's not hard to understand why. First, executives have the difficult task of identifying all the possible risks cutting across their enterprises. Next, decision makers need to have the right data in order to measure and anticipate these risks. Not an easy task.
In modern corporations, the data is scattered literally everywhere — often in the most prosaic of repositories, the spreadsheet. It is not uncommon for a major business to have vital corporate information in tens of thousands of spreadsheets. Financial data, employee information, you name it.
Although company officers and their staffs struggle to make the best of the situation, it's incredibly difficult to really understand what is going on — and what is likely to happen — with information all over the place like this.
Companies would benefit substantially by integrating all their data, so that managers can, at a glance, understand vital aspects of their operation — for example, the exact amount that the company is holding in any currency at a given point in time.
Another key benefit of data integration is that it enables all that information to be run through sophisticated analytics systems, providing decision makers with reams of insight as well as advance warning of problems on the horizon.
Analytics can be very helpful in predicting the exposure inherent in a massive portfolio of loans, for example. It can help telecommunications companies predict and reduce the risk of losing subscribers to rival carriers. It can help energy companies avoid expensive plant shutdowns by predicting when complex machinery is likely to fail. Technicians can simply switch out parts ahead of time, saving millions of dollars.
Also, by using analytics, financial organizations can better pinpoint and manage a host of other risks, such as fraud committed by a rogue trader or the risks that come with operating in foreign countries.
We are at a crucial moment in time, poised between a difficult recent past and an uncertain future. Companies have a chance to demonstrate leadership by deploying the kind of intelligent systems that understand and address problems before they happen.
As we move forward, one thing is clear: eliminating risk is not the goal. Risk is neither bad nor good. It cannot be removed from financial markets anymore than it can be banished from life itself. A world without risk would be a world without entrepreneurs, explorers and artists. It would be a static, unpleasant place to live.
No, the key is to understand and prudently manage risk — invaluable skills that have supported every successful human endeavor throughout history. It is time for businesses to seize the opportunity, and in the process make the world a more successful and safer place.