How often have we heard from those involved in financial frauds that they never initially intended on perpetrating a fraud? Well then, what did they intend? Having personally witnessed more than a handful of ‘under the radar’ frauds in the form of intentional misrepresentations of investment values, the activity often centers on a financial term known as ‘basis risk.’ What is basis risk? Why do I think our current financial system has numerous financial frauds germinating?
Basis risk is defined as:
The risk that offsetting investments in a hedging strategy will not experience price changes in entirely opposite directions from each other. This imperfect correlation between the two investments creates the potential for excess gains or losses in a hedging strategy, thus adding risk to the position.
Offsetting vehicles are generally similar in structure to the investments being hedged, but they are still different enough to cause concern. For example, in the attempt to hedge against a two-year bond with the purchase of Treasury bill futures, there is a risk that the Treasury bill and the bond will not fluctuate identically.
I have no doubt that a number of financial firms entered into hedging strategies over the last 9 months that present massive basis risk. While these financial firms own an array of individual investment positions (corporate, municipal, mortgage-backed, commercial mortgages, asset-backed, equities), the hedging vehicle utilized is often an index of some sort which is representative of an entire market segment or, in the case of a specific corporate entity, the CDS (credit derivative swap) for that company.
As financial firms move forward, they manage their investment positions and their hedges accordingly. Do not forget, however, that last Spring the FASB (Federal Accounting Standards Board) relaxed the mark-to-market accounting standard so banks could delineate between true credit impairments in their investments and liquidity risks.
While not every firm may have entered into hedging strategies, it is naive to think many did not given the perilous price action in the markets over the last 9 months. Fast forward to the current period and we see the SEC is seriously concerned with these issues, as well they should be. CFO Magazine reports, The SEC’s Most Wanted:
Last fall the Securities and Exchange Commission promised to scrutinize the regulatory filings of the largest financial institutions. So it’s little wonder that many of the recent comment letters sent by the SEC to corporations focused on the more controversial accounting issues that cropped up during the current financial crisis, including valuations of financial instruments and other-than-temporary impairments of securities.
The regulator has also niggled nonfinancial firms, by asking finance executives to better explain how they worked through goodwill impairment testing. Brad Davidson, a partner at accounting firm Crowe Horwath who recently compiled a list of frequent topics cited by SEC staffers in comment letters, says finance executives should keep the points raised by SEC staffers in mind as they put the finishing touches on their next round of financial reporting.
While firms may be able to disguise the hidden losses and embedded risks for a period of time (which can be extended, depending on the size and scope of the operation), basis risks have brought more so-called outstanding traders, portfolio managers, CIOs, and CFOs to their knees than they would ever care to admit.