Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Business’

Understanding Investment Diversification

October 24, 2010 1 comment

“Diversification is a time-honored investment principle” (Gibson, 2004). Early documentation of diversification may be traced back as far as 1200 BC, where the Jewish Talmud preached that “every man divide his money into three parts, and invest a third in land, a third in business, and a third let him keep in reserve” (Gibson, 2004). People have recognized, from an early stage, the benefits of risk spreading brought upon by diversification; even if that was at an intuitive level. And as the world continues to take on varying forms, as a result of changes brought upon by one generation inheriting it from the next, part of what remains constant across time, is that “investors want high returns, [all the while not incurring] risk in securing those returns” (Gibson, 2004).

But why do investors want returns in the first place? And what risks are they trying to avoid? In answering these questions, we must first establish that when investing in any asset, an investor is taking on a certain level of risk. This degree of risk, may be divided into two parts: systematic and non-systematic. The systematic portion is association with market risk, and is ingrained in each asset; meaning it cannot be diversified away. As for the unsystematic risk portion, this type of risk is asset specific. Unsystematic risk is the amount of possible deviation between the expected and actual return on an asset. The higher the possible deviation, the higher the unsystematic risk. As a result of the risk investors take when giving up their capital to invest in a given asset, they expect to be compensated. Naturally, the higher the associated risk, the higher the compensation; or in other words, the expected returns.

Diversification, refers to the selection and investing in various assets, so as to spread the risks associated with investing in each asset. Since each asset inherently contains the same market risks, that is systematic risk, then diversification “could be conceptualized as a reduction in unsystematic risk” (Hight, 2010). The selection criteria for the assets when achieving diversification, includes [but not limited to]:
– Geographic location [i.e. different international markets]
– Industry [i.e different industry types]
– Asset type [i.e. Bonds, stocks, treasury bills, etc].
– The relationship between the returns of the different assets [also known as correlation]

So up until this point, we have determined that:
> Any type of asset bares some form of risk [systematic and non-systematic]
> Investors, whom are giving up their capital to invest in assets, want returns to be compensated for the risk they are baring. Preferably, the investors want as high a return as possible; and as low a risk as possible.
> What diversification does effectively is spread an investor’s capital across a portfolio of assets, reducing the “risks that bear no compensation” (Wagner and Lau, 1971). Generally, the “more securities in a portfolio, the greater the likelihood that sufficient good fortune will appear to balance off the bad fortune” (Sharpe, 1995). This gives the investor the benefit of higher predictability when if comes to the expected return on investment. Diversification facilities for less investment volatility.

But so far, this discussion has only tackled diversification from a very theoretical point of view. In the real world, certain impediments exist, as to lessen the benefits gained from diversification. Such hurdles include:

> Markets are not as uniform as mathematical formulas make them to be: the diversification process relies on formulas and probabilities [such as the quadratic formula and normal distribution] that provide good approximations of the expected asset returns. Also, these formulas rely on data input that is based on sample historical data; as it would be too costly and difficult to take into account all of the historical data. Thus, given that formulas are not exact, and the underlying data is only a partial set, a lot of estimation error is introduced.
> Returns are not symmetric: what diversification aims to achieve, is to create a portfolio of assets, where the correlation between the different assets is low; as when one asset goes down, the other goes up. But “paradoxically, [the correlations of] well-diversified portfolios… tend to increase during crisis situations, reducing the effectiveness of diversification when it is needed most” (Levy and Post, p.237, 2005).
> The diversification effect has become less due to globalization: lower costs in information and capital accessibility, has had the effect of increasing the correlation between the various markets. This dampened the diversification effect, as “economic events in one part of the world affect markets on the other side of the globe” (Gibson, 2004)
> Limited possibility sets due to regulations: investors may have to adhere to certain rules and regulations when it comes to investing; for example: a set percentage limit in investing in a given asset type,  or investing in only environmentally friendly companies. Such restrictions, whether enforced or voluntary, end up reducing the diversification effect as the number of investment options [the possibility set] shrinks.
> Market timing: a lot of underlying variables in the diversification formulas must be ‘tweaked’ to reflect the best diversification strategy. But such tweaking is highly dependent on the market conditions, and thus timing is crucial. Yet, since we still do not have a way to tell how future events may unfold, market timing is at best a guess-timate!
> The human factor: steering away from all the mathematics and number crunching, there are some human elements that cannot be capturing by formulas, such as: what defines an acceptable risk level? what defines an acceptable return for a given risk level? etc. Each person may answer these questions different, and as such, a given diversification strategy/formula may not apply to everyone.

Warren Buffett once said, “diversification is a protection against ignorance. It makes very little sense for those who know what they’re doing”. But then again, diversification does have some merits, so as long as its effectiveness is not over estimated. It has been proven that as more assets are included in the diversified portfolio, the marginal benefits diminish quickly. Thus wide-diversification is essentially harmful to the investor. This theme extends to all types of investments, regardless of the underlying asset. For example, in the real estate business, “marginal risk reduction from expanding into more cities diminishes quickly, making the choice of staying geographically concentrated a sensible portfolio strategy” (Ping and Roulac, 2007).  Effectively, it might be best if one utilizes a more focus-diversified strategy.

— Youssef Aboul-Naja

The Pros & Cons of Financial Globalization

October 10, 2010 4 comments
Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, once stated that “… arguing against globalization is like arguing against the laws of gravity”. “From a historical perspective … globalization is not a new phenomenon” (Schmukler, 2004); though given the technological advancements in the most recent decade or two, globalization has manifested itself in all fields, “flattening the world” (p.51)  as Thomas Friedman called it. Technological advancements facilitated cheaper means of communication and transportation, effectively bridging the distance disparities between nations. From a financials’ industry perspective, this brought good news to both investors and businesses alike; or so it appeared from first glance!

There is no denying the advantages that are brought upon by financial globalization. Due to the interconnectedness of the world markets, a given country’s market will gain a “deeper degree of financial integration” (Schmukler, 2004). This translates to further market stability and regulation, strengthening investors’ trust in a given country’s market. Thus, businesses seeking to raise funds, will have a larger pool of investors to chose from. Due to the access of a larger pool of investors, “increased competitiveness” (Moldovan, 2010) will drive down the cost of funds for businesses. So not only will businesses have access to more funds, but the cost of raising the funds will be lower. From a global perspective, this will lead to “better allocation of capital” (Moldovan, 2010). From a specific business perspective, this may lead to businesses raising their required capital at the very least; it might even accelerate the business’s growth plans and funding requirements. This is most notable in low income countries, where a study conducted by the International Monetary Fund shows that private flows have “grown more than fourfold since the 1980s” (Dorsey, 2008).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Dorsey, 2008)

 

 

Financial globalization also bares benefits to investors.  For example, it does promote for a “better financial infrastructure” (Schmukler, 2004). As a result, lenders and borrowers operate in a financial system that is more “transparent, competitive, and efficient” (Schmukler, 2004). This leads, from the investor’s perspective, to more trust in the financial system. It also enables the investor to make varied investments; allowing for the spreading of risk via  diversification.

But just like falling to the ground due to gravity, globalization has its dark side. Kofi Annon continued elsewhere to say that although “… globalization is a fact of life … we have underestimated its fragility”.

As the financial markets of the world become ever connected due to globalization, if a problem occurred in one part of the globe, it would “cascade [and echo] uncontrollably” (Beinhocker et al., 2009) in other corners of the world. The latest of such crises is the housing bubble burst in the United States. Therefore, the risk of financial globalization is market disturbance due to factors beyond that of the domestic market. What this may mean for businesses seeking capital at such times, is that it will not find any; or if it does, it will be at a very high cost. This will always be true, even in the case if a given country’s government takes necessary precautionary measures to support its financial market in times of needs

For example, Saudi Arabia has been preparing its yearly budget with the assumption that the price of the oil barrel is USD 40; though in reality, the oil barrel was being sold for over USD 100.  This created a lot of surplus for the Saudi government. When the housing bubble burst in end of 2008, the Saudi government tried to inject a lot of liquidity in its market. And although, Saudi Arabia was able to recover much quicker than other countries, the truth of the matter is that liquidity dried up in the country, and businesses seeking capital at that time, had to pay a higher premium to obtain it.

One benefit that was cited in regards to financial globalization is that capital, on a global scale, is distributed in the most efficient manner. But this same benefit may be viewed in a negative light by some business owners whom are seeking capital, due to the emerging trend of “imbalances in trade and financial flows” (Wyss, 2009). To such business owners, financial globalization dried up their pool of potential investors; or increased substantially their cost of capital.

Looking at things from an investor’s point of view, it can be argued that globalization of financial markets aid in spreading their risk via diversification, but when a crisis does occur, no financial market or industry is shielded. Thus, the spreading of risk efforts would be dampened due to globalization of financial markets. Sort of a double edge sword.

Another aspect that must be analyzed, from an investor’s point of view, is that due to the globalization of financial markets, capital is allocated in the most efficient manner; irrespective of other non profit oriented criteria. Rarely is a criterion such as the likes of morality, humanitarianism and environmentalism are incorporated in the definition of efficiency. Thus globalization of financial markets will penalize investors who don’t regard profits as their only priority.

— Youssef Aboul-Naja

Income: It’s Definition, Measurement and Importance

July 11, 2010 1 comment

As per the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), accounting is the “the art of recording, classifying, and summarizing in a significant manner and in terms of money, transactions and events which are, in part at least, of financial character, and interpreting the results thereof” (Wikipedia). Thus an accountant must be able to capture a company’s financial interactions and present it in such a manner that will aid management in their decision making activities. The sensitivity of an accountant’s role comes in the form of deciding which financial data to capture, and the means of presenting them. This of course is dependant on management’s ever changing requirements, stemming directly from the owner’s objectives.

As the art of accounting has been around for thousands of years, it intricacies have been ever evolving, catering to the needs of its users. Brinberg (1980) has classified the accounting’s evolution into four periods, naming them the: Pure Custodial Period, Traditional Custodial Period, Asset Utilization Period, and Strategic Stewardship Period. With each period, the requirements of the business owners, or financiers, progressively became more thorough. The thoroughness were a result of complexities in the financial domain, brought upon by advancements in technology. These requirements manifested themselves in the financial reporting practices of the accountants.

In understanding our current financial reporting practices, one must focus on the current accounting period, along with the one that have lead up to it; the strategic stewardship and asset utilization periods. During those times, given the evolution of the investment markets, the external capital finance was released from the exclusivity grip of “bankers, other lenders and trade creditors” (Elliotte & Elliotte, p. 40, 2009). Reporting priorities shifted from liquidity to profitability, and as such, “the balance sheet data on its own was no longer sufficient; hence, the income statement emerged” (O’Connell, 2007). Central to this shift is the concept of income.

Income may be defined in many different ways, though the different conceptional notions are “reconciled in the long term” (Elliotte & Elliotte, 2007). The two dominant income views is that of the accountant and the economist. From an accountant’s perspective, income is defined as the residual portion of revenue which is the result of subtracting total revenues generated from the total expenses incurred by a company during the revenue generation phase. An economist though, would beg to differ, by defining income in terms of residual expected cash flows available from consumption, after dividends and equity appreciation has been taken into account.

Although the accountant’s and economist’s view of the income concept differ, in that one deals with historical values and the other in future expected cashflows, its importance is of vital use. Effectively, management has been entrusted with funds from various sources [shareholders, financiers, etc.] to appreciate its value, and as such, income is an effective indicator of measuring that. Management’s stewardship on its operating effectiveness of working capital may be best monitored by charting a company’s income patterns. From a managerial point of view, income will aid in highlighting the disparities between actual and predicted performance targets. As for governments, income is a benchmark of a company’s asset appreciation for a given period, that they may apply taxes on. Investors on the other hand, may use income in assessing a company’s commitment to seeing through theirs stated dividend and retention policies. As for financiers, income history may be used in predicting future performances.

With the vast benefits of income, extending beyond the aforementioned examples, its users must be aware of some drawbacks in its measurement process. The accountant’s view of income suffers from the following:

  • Revenue/loss is recorded for only certain assets [such as land and building] as they appreciate/depreciate in value (whereas the remainder of the assets are recorded according to their cost value)
  • Capital profits go unrecorded until they are realized
  • Unrealized profits are not recorded until their date of realization, whereas unrealized losses are recorded immediately
  • The allotted depreciation depreciation expense, is an accountant’s estimate.

As for the economist’s view of income, it suffers from the future unpredictability element and differing investor expectations:

  • The predicted cash flows are not concrete (thus the expected income to be generated is at best a guesstimate)
  • As investors have differing risk thresholds and time preferences, so does the variables used in finding the present value of the future cash flows; resulting in varying income figures. Therefore, the value of the economic income is user dependant; making it difficult to produce financial statements under the economist’s view of income.

Given the various definitions and drawbacks of measuring income, it uses is still of vital role in the ever evolving “sophisticated capital market[s]” (Elliotte & Elliotte, p. 55, 2009). With “‘the need for both retrospective and prospective data” (O’Connell, 2007) from the various users of the financial statements, income may provide just that.

Youssef Aboul-Naja

Measuring Financial Performance: Is the Cash flow Method Superior to that of the Accrual Basis?

Around two thousand five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that “nothing endures but change” (Wikiquote, 2010). This simple axiom, if I may, is the main underlying factor that influences our behavior when it comes to interacting with the outside sphere at any point of time. Given man’s inquisitive behavior, sciences were devised to explain the outside world. However, since these sciences are nothing but a mere reflection of what we know, it is by no coincidence that they are in a continual state of work-in-progress.  From an accounting perspective, whether the art of bookkeeping is maintained according to the rules devised by “stone counters [as was the practice some 10,000 years ago]” (Atkinson, 2002), or the more complex accrual basis, accounting will continually change to better serve the needs of the stakeholders. Accountants, essentially, are communicators.

But, one must humbly observe, that words have the power of changing the world; thus the duties of an accountant are ever so important. Within this ever-changing, sensitive, backdrop does the latest accounting contention arise: is the cash-flow method superior to that of the accrual?

In a nutshell, the cash-flow methods calls for recognizing transactions as cash is physically exchanged between two parties. Proponents of this method claim that the figures provided by the accountants are more factual, since they are backed by already executed transactions. As for the accrual basis of accounting method, transactions are recognized as their execution is earned [regardless of whether or not cash has been exchanged]. The proponents on this side of the camp claim that “accrual accounting information more fully reflects the overall effects of periodic managerial decisions” (Kwon, 1989).

To that respect, according to the two dominant, non-governmental, accounting bodies, the FASB [Financial Accounting Standards Board] and IASB [International Financial Reporting Standards], companies that claim adherence to either standard must provide statements that have an accrual and cash-flow outlooks. It is to be noted that adhering to one of the standards signifies that the financial statements have been prepared in accordance to accepted bookkeeping practices; facilitating comparability. This is of utmost importance to a lot of companies, as they seek capital from various sources.

Given the high-profile, “cooking the books” (Datar, 2002), scandals of companies in recent years, it has been proposed, by the cash-flow method advocates, that if accountants drop the accrual method as they prepare the financial statements, confidence would once again be restored in the financial reporting profession. They also claim that the difficulties, and controversies, of devising a unified set of global accounting standards would be a thing of the past.

To test this claim, it is best to start by clarifying the term confidence in a financial reporting context. “The success of a firm depends ultimately, on its ability to generate cash receipts in excess of disbursements” (Dechow,1994). The beneficiaries of these excess cash receipts are essentially the stakeholders of the company; most probably the shareholders, but could include employees, other parties, etc. [this is a company/country/culture specific]. These stakeholders are the financiers of companies. The commitment of backing a company is highly influenced, along with other factors, by the stake-holders’ confidence that the financial statements have been prepared in manner reflective of the actual financial reality of the company.

To that accord, if the cash-flow method was the only prevalent way of transmitting financial information to the stakeholders, that would not necessarily restore confidence in financial reporting. “If people [managers] are dishonest, any system [or method] is vulnerable” (Quinn, 2003). Managers may time cash disbursement to their benefit; especially that management compensation is closely tied to performance. Also, since projects could extend beyond one-year, inaccuracies creep into the cash-flow method. For example, this method will falsely portray a loss for a company in the first year on a given project and a profit on the second; provided that revenue will come only on the second year. This scenario shows the superiority and flexibility of the accrual basis method since it more accurately reflects the reality of the financial situation.

However, many successful companies that are profitable on paper declare bankruptcy, as they mismanaged their handling of cash, the bloodline of any organization. Each method complements the other. If we liken the cash-flow method to short-term war skirmishes and the accrual method to the overall war result, a war general should be concerned with winning both; as each is dependant upon the other. The way to restore confidence in the financial reporting sector, should lay along the lines of needing “good ethics and a good system of governance“ (Quinn, 2003).

Coming back to the claim, dropping the accrual method will remove the controversies surrounding a unified set of global accounting standards, it could be argued either way. The cash-flow method is more clear cut when it comes to what constitutes a completed transaction. Thus any issues related to cultural views, status of national accounting profession, taxation (to name a few) automatically become more or less irrelevant. Though if bookkeeping is handled in such a clinical fashion, other sets of issues will arise. For example, profit seeking investors will have a problem with financial statements that deal only with liquidity. Therefore, it may seem that controversies surrounding a unified set of global accounting standards might be lessened if the cash-flow method  is solely used; this claim is not entirely true. Needless to say, given the improvements in technology, a unified set of global accounting standards is required  regardless of which method is put in use; as various economies are linked via global transactions. “No man [or in that regards a country/economy] is an island” (Donne, 1839). “The rapid spread of the financial crisis” (Anon, 2009) in 2008 is a testament of that.

Youssef Aboul-Naja

Working Capital: Benefits of the Money Market

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

In the Beginning: The Balance Sheet

It all starts, when a couple of entities decide to pool their resources together to generate more resources. They do so by creating a company; and they inject it with their pooled resources [known as equity] along with some long-term debt; the combination of equity and long-term debt consitutes the company’s capital strucutre. The company then converts this capital “into assets [and operates it] to earn economic returns by fulfilling customer needs” (Groth and Anderson, 1997).

Thus, we have established that a company has assets financed through equity and long-term debt. The company’s assets are made up of current assets [which are more liquid: in the sense that they can be converted into cash more readily] and fixed assets [which are more illiquid assets: such as factories]. Like wise,  part of the longer-term debt will be short-term (or current liabilities), to enable day to day financing operations. Therefore, we conclude that current and fixed assets are financed with current liabilities, long-term debt and equity; which are the constitutes of the balance sheet. This is captured in the below formula:

Current Assets + Fixed Assets = Current Liabilities + Long-term Debt + Equity   (equation 1)

Working Capital: What Is That?

In a nutshell, “working capital is the [difference] between current assets and current liabilities” (Pass and Pike, 1987). Current liabilities represents the debts or obligations that must be paid by the company within the duration of one year; whereas, current assets are those assets that will be converted into cash within one year. Therefore, working capital represents the supposed excess cash on hand “to continue business operations” (Needles and Powers, 2004, p.259). The importance of this quantity is that it gages a company’s liquidity; the availability of cash to continue operations and meeting debt obligations.

Ideal World View: Working Capital

In an ideal world, the management of a company would be able to identify all the debt obligations it shall incur in the upcoming year. By knowing such information, management would match the current liabilities with the same amount of current assets; effectively having a net working capital of zero. Referring back to (equation 1) from the previous section, since current assets and current liabilities are equal, they can be dropped from the equation. Therefore, in an ideal world, fixed assets (which have a longer nature of usability) would be financed by long-term debt and equity. So we notice that, there is a matching of the “maturity dates of the assets with the liabilities” (Pass and Pike, 1987). This ideal world view is best captured in the below diagram:


Real World View: Working Capital & Money Markets

Though the ideal world view conceptually makes sense, it is flawed for two reasons. The first of which is that it is very hard to predict with certainty the debt obligations for the upcoming year. The second, and more important issue, is that “current assets cannot be expected to drop to zero … [as] long-term rising level of sales will result in some permanent investment in current assets” (Ross et al., 2008, p.755). This permanent investment in current assets comes partially in the form of accounts receivables, inventories, accruals, etc. Therefore, the real world view diagram will look something like:

A company will want to maintain a working capital such that it would minimize the sum of the carrying and shortage costs; it would do so by “minimizing the amount of funds tied up in current assets” (Filbeck and Krueger, 2005). Why a company would do so, is because short-term debt is much cheaper than long-term debt &/or equity, especially since working capital is financed by their of the latter two.  But if a company wants to maintain a set working capital, its must be able to predict accurately future inflow/outflows of transactions (cash); which as previously discussed, not possible. Thus a company might have, at anytime, a bit more or less cash relative to the optimal capital structures, running costs up; as depicted in the below diagram:

(Pass and Pike, 1987)

That’s were the role of the Money Market (MM) comes in. If a company has excess cash, it would invest it in the MM. Likewise, if it requires additional money, it would obtain it from the MM; which is short-term in nature, meaning cheaper than long-term debt or equity. In that regards, the more developed the MM of a given country, the easier it is for companies to obtain short-term finances, and maintain a working capital that would result in the least amount of costs.

~ Youssef Aboul-Naja

Capital Budgeting, Real Options, & Bending Grass

February 28, 2010 3 comments

Trees, no matter how well rooted they are, topple over from gusts of winds due to their inflexibility. But Confucius noted that “when the wind blows, the grass bends”. Thus, adaptability to the surrounding environment, plays a big role in survival. Against such backdrop, do I put into perspective the topic of Real Options; and how that aids management in better project selection; making them more adaptable.

Companies are established to generate wealth to its stakeholders. In doing so, a company must be working towards a vision; which is synonymous to the company’s central theme. By working towards their vision, companies take on and execute various projects. But since a company’s main object is to maximize the wealth of its stakeholders, management must have a way [or a tool] to help them select the most profitable projects. This is where Capital Budgeting comes into play.

In a nutshell, capital budgeting is the process of “making and managing expenditures on long-lived assets” (Ross et. al, 2008, p.2). Management must determine the cash inflows and outflows of a given project to determine its suitability relative to:

  • How the cash flows affect the stakeholders’ overall wealth
  • How the cash flows measure against the cash flows of other potential projects that management could undertake instead

Given that companies have limited funds (or fund sources), management must select those projects that create the most financial benefit to the shareholders.

But the process of selecting projects is not as trivial as portrayed above. A company exists in a complex environment, whereby a lot of factors are interconnected and in play. In fact, market environments are so complex, that they are semi-deterministic; they cannot be modeled with 100% accuracy, yet they are not chaotic. Thus uncertainty complicates the project selection process, as future cash inflows and outflows are only known with a given degree of accuracy.

In solving the project selection problem, various investment decision tools have been devised to assist managers; most prominent of which are:

  • Net Present Value (NPV): whereby the future cash inflows and outflows are discounted back to present money and all added up. The project with the highest NPV value will be the clear winner, as it maximizes shareholder’s wealth.
  • Internal Rate of Return (IRR): the IRR is the rate were a project does not contribute any gains or losses to the shareholders’ wealth – thus management would be indifferent about executing it. With this tool, managers compare the rate of return of a given project against its IRR to determine its level of profitability. The project that produces that highest profitability is selected.
  • Payback Period: Projects are determined on how quickly the cash inflows payback the initial investment [cash outflow]. The fastest project is selected.

Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, each method has its short comings. These methods were “designed for relatively stable environments… As a result, business strategy … turn out to be flawed because something outside their control doesn’t go as planned” (Trigeorgis et al., 2007). What was need is another method, that accounts for uncertainty and management’s ability to respond to future events; thus the method of Real Options came about.

“At its core, the real option perspective is like other theories of investment in that it is concerned with identifying the factors that influence the investor’s threshold —the point at which investors choose whether to invest or not” (Miller and Flota, 2002). What the real options method did differently, is that it introduced the concept of “the possibility of contingent decisions” (Amram and Kulatilaka, 1999). The method was a bit more chaotic compared to other methods, in the sense that it was more reflective of reality. Thus it accounted for situations of project expansion, contraction, abandonment, timing of events, and “sequential [growth] options [of other projects]” (Wyant, 2009). By explicitly accounting for the future flexibility inherent in capital investment opportunities, the real option method would better portray the real financial effect of a given project on shareholders’ wealth.

The main benefits of the real options method is that it facilities for better planning and in taking strategic decisions. Other methods might be too conservative in analyzing the benefits of a project, which would result in its rejection. The reason why the other methods suffer from such consevatism, is because they commit project decisions at the beginning stages, which results in “sacrificing flexibility and increasing exposure to … uncertainties of new markets” (Miller and Flota, 2002). Therefore with the real options method, better strategic modeling is conducted, which results in flexible project variability, a more informed management and lower costs [cash flows].

At my current place of employment, a financial leasing company, we constantly use the real options method. Since our funds are limited, we are selective with the clients we are willing to finance. In determining the risk profile of the client, we attach probabilities to our future relationship directions with the client: increase/decrease/or cap the exposure, perform repossession in the event of a payment defaults, file a lawsuit, etc. Based on such analysis, we are able “to better quantify the value of each contingency” (Trigeorgis et al., 2007) and effectively better handle our client base and overall company risk and returns.

~ Youssef Aboul-Naja

Why do companies need to understand risk?

February 22, 2010 2 comments

“If you have a pilot flying a plane who doesn’t understand there can be storms, what is going to happen?” (Nocera, 2009). Against this backdrop, I commence my discussion regarding the importance of understanding the nature of risk, and its profound effect on the returns of long and short term investments undertaken by businesses. The thought of escaping risk is an impossible feat. As with every action, there is an attached element of risk to it; ‘avoiding risk can itself be risky’ (Salzberg, 2010). Effectively, to survive and achieve growth, a business must learn to embrace risk by understanding its intricate elements, and the impact it brings about its operations. Thus risk, if handled properly, may very well be a source of opportunity. The Chinese captured such a concept, by denoting the symbol for risk as “a combination of two symbols—one for danger and one for opportunity (Damodaran, 2005).

What is risk? Though there is no verdict on an exact definition, Elroy Dimson proposed a rather interesting version, which states that “risk means more things can happen than will happen” (Farrell, 2007). So in that sense, risk is the anticipation of future events that will have an adversary effect on a given business; though not all events will take place. Also, not all events can be anticipated. If we can foretell the future, the element of risk would simply diminish to zero. Thus, risk is our interpretation of how the future events will unfold, given the current factors we have at hand.

From an Investment’s point of view, taking on risk will result in some form of return. How high or low the return is depends on how the predicted risk element pans out with the actual future events. Nonetheless, a return is composed of two elements: an expected part and a ‘surprise’ (Ross et. al, 2008, p.322) part. The expected part further breaks into a:
– Systematic element: a surprise element that is applicable to almost every asset
– Unsystematic element: a surprise element applicable only to a single asset

As companies go about their everyday business, they constantly engage with various activities; each having an element of risk. And as discussed earlier, each risk has a return associated to it. Thus, as companies go about their daily business, they are maintaining a portfolio of returns:
-> They must achieve a certain return to shareholders
-> They might have invested in other companies (thus they expect a certain return)
-> They might be undertaking a project (thus they need to achieve a certain return margin for the project to be profitable)
…etc
So for companies to survive, they must understand risk (the systematic and unsystematic elements), as this affects the returns generated, and would, in turn, affect the company’s return/investment portfolio on the short and long runs.

In understanding systematic risk, I bring upon an example from the company I currently work for. I work in a financing house in Saudi Arabia. Though it is a privately held company, they are constantly engaged in loan extending transactions, which bears an element of risk. The rates that are offered to the clients’ partly accounts for the systematic risk element [though it cannot be predicted precisely]. Examples include:
-> The prevailing SIBOR in the Kingdom
-> The death of King Fahd in 2005: “the market opened at a decline” (Akeel, 2005), which resonated across the whole Saudi economy, resulting in our company receiving delayed payments from its clients, and a lower overall return.
-> During the end of 2008 and throughout 2009, bearing in mind the global crisis, the oil prices fluctuated from “$98 per barrel, rose to $147 per barrel in July, then ended the year at $44 per barrel” (Anon, 2010). Such swings had an effect on government spending (especially in the early part of 2009), and effectively also affected client payments to our company.

Now, in understanding unsystematic risk, we continue upon the example of my company. Unsystematic risk examples include:
-> The change of our General Manager – the older one suddenly decided to resign. As the new GM is not tested [came from outside], this raised the risk factor to the company’s owners, thus requiring higher returns (meaning a higher cost of capital on our company) [short-term issue]
-> Changes in the leasing laws, as per directions from the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency. This drove up the cost of doing certain parts of our business [short-term issue]
-> A conflict of interest issue, which required us to create two operational units (instead of one), and essentially drove the prices up [long-term issue]

Thus, in order to continue surviving, the company must understand how these systematic/unsystematic risks affect it – whether they are long or short term in nature. Once it understands, it will be able to minimize its risks [i.e. maximize its returns]. Also, by understanding how the various risks impacting the company and its effect on its overall returns [from current projects], they will be able to determine whether or not to “add a new project to its existing portfolio… [By] estimating the coefficient of correlation between the cash flows [returns] from the new project and the total cash flows [returns] from existing projects … it can [thus] determine the effect of the new project on the means and standard deviations of the total cash flows” (Hull, 1986) and decide on its overall benefit to the portfolio.

Understanding how risk [its systematic and unsystematic elements] impacts a company’s activities is of crucial importance to its survival in the short/long term. Failing to comprehend and incorporate such risk elements in business activity will lead to catastrophic results. Referring to the 2008/2009 global economic meltdown would suffice.

~ Youssef Aboul-Naja