Friday, February 13, 2009

Learning from the credit crunch: a series of unfortunate incidents (and examples of bad governance)

There’s lots of food for thought around risk, governance and regulation in the revelations from the former chief risk manager at HBOS, Paul Moore.

For people looking for some analysis about the lessons for governance arising from the credit crunch, I would particularly recommend a couple of documents.

There was an interesting article about Flaws at the top in the December issue of the Institute of Directors’ magazine The Director. The article quotes one observer as noting:

Corporate governance itself hasn't failed—the banks have failed corporate governance by not complying with it.

There certainly appears to have been a lack of challenge (and maybe understanding) of the risks that some of the banks were running.

A fuller survey of governance, regulation and the credit crunch was published by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in November. While a lot of the analysis was of an accounting technical nature and sometimes banking-specific, Corporate Governance and the Credit Crunch (pdf available) made points of wider relevance to boards in all sectors.

The ACCA made the general observation:

Many of the causal factors seem to be inextricably linked to a failure in corporate governance. Regulatory boxes may have been ticked but fundamental principles of good governance were breached. There should be more emphasis in the performance of corporate governance than with its regulatory compliance.

My personal view is there can be a sense that governance can become ritualistic as an unforeseen effect of rigid and poor regulation.

On the issue of risk management, the report noted:

Risk should have been more fully taken into account when making decisions about strategy or operations. Risk management tools have not always been fit for purpose.... More use should have been made of scenario planning as a risk tool. The risk management function needs to earn, and be accorded, higher status.

I would concur although it is worth remembering that the best sensitivity analysis and scenario modelling would not have necessarily factored in some of the arguably unforeseeable events that have come to pass.

The report links matters of risk to the ever-present fact of life whether we are talking about multi-national banks or community groups: the information imbalance between executives and non-executives. It usefully re-states the obvious:

There is a temptation for managers to make sure that information prepared for non-executive directors does not raise too many difficult questions. A partial explanation for boards not understanding their organisations’ risks is that information is sanitised by the time it reaches them.

It may not be much of a silver lining but hopefully board members will learn some lessons from what lay behind the current financial crisis.

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