5 Issues for Boards on Risk Appetite

To avoid common misconceptions, management must have extensive experience with planned and monitored risk taking.

Many have struggled to find and articulate a risk appetite. It is actually not too hard to find, if you know where to look. It is right there – on the border. Risk appetite is the border between the board and management. Once management has proposed a risk appetite and the board has approved it, then management is empowered to take risks. As long as the risks are within the risk appetite, then management does not need to inform the board until after taking those risks. If management plans to take risks that are outside of the risk appetite, then executives must go to the board in advance for permission. That, of course, is just the bare minimum communication with the board about risk. There are five topics that make up a good level of board communications: 1. Risk appetite and plan 2. Risk position and profile 3. Top=risk mitigation and capabilities 4. Emerging risks 5. Major changes to risk environment and risk plan The first and last items are the subject here. The other topics will be covered in later posts. Notice that the first item on the list above is appetite AND Plan. Before discussing risk appetite, both management and the board need to be very familiar with the company’s historic levels of risk and the intentions for risk level. If there is no history of risk planning, it is totally premature to even discuss risk appetite. It is doubtless true in all cases that management has vast experience with risk taking, as well as experience with risk taking that ended up creating losses or other undesirable adverse consequences. But unless there has been experience of planned and monitored risk taking, there is a natural propensity to start with the presumption that, in the past, the highest-risk activities are those that ended in losses and that activities that did not end up with losses were lower-risk. While losses are a good indication of one sort of risk, they are not the only way to assess risk. Imagine the risk of an earthquake in a specific area. There have been no earthquake losses there in living memory. But that doesn’t mean that there is no risk. There was a devastating earthquake there just 150 years ago, thus there is certainly some potential for future events. Risk is not loss, and loss is not risk. Risk is the potential for loss. It only exists in advance of an event. Loss is the negative outcome of an event. Risk appetite sits on another border. That is the border between regular and extraordinary – mitigation, that is. For each of the major risks of a firm, we have a regular process for control, mitigation and treatment of risk that we have and and that we acquire. We also should have some idea of what we might do if the level of risk gets out of hand. For example, a life insurer writing variable annuities might have a hedging program that is used to mitigate unwanted equity market risk. A P&C insurer might have a reinsurance program to lay off excess aggregations of property risk. A bank might have a securitization program to mitigate the portion of mortgage risk that it does not want to keep. In all three cases, an unexpected jump in closing rate or a new very successful distributor might suddenly cause the level of residual risk after normal mitigation to become excessive. Usually, this is evidenced by a weakening solvency margin. The company must go into extraordinary mitigation mode. That means that for the risk that has become excessive, or for another risk if they have a nimble risk steering function, there will need to be some major change in operations to bring the level of risk back into line. The choices for these extraordinary mitigations may be simple adjustments to the normal mitigation processes, a shift in hedging targets, a drop in the reinsurance retention or an increased emphasis on securitizing all tranches. But most often these extraordinary mitigations involve real changes to plans, such as a change in pricing structure, risk acceptance procedures, a change in product or distribution strategy to discourage the least profitable or highest risk sales or a change in a share buy-back plan. In the most extreme cases, there might be a need to temporarily shut down the source of the excessive risk. Unexpected losses might also cause a sudden shift downward in risk capacity and therefore in risk appetite. In such cases, extraordinary mitigations will favor options that might speed the rebuilding of capital. In the most extreme cases, the final stage mitigation would be to sell an entire operation along with the embedded risk exposures. Almost all of those extraordinary mitigation choices are not decisions that management prefers for businesses. But good managers have some advance idea of the priority order in which they might apply those tactics as well as the triggers for such actions. Those triggers are the boundary for risk taking. They are reflective of the risk appetite. So if you recognize that risk appetite is this boundary condition, you realize that the talk you hear in some places of “allocating risk appetite” is not the approach that you want to take. What you really need is a risk target that is allocated. The risk target is your plan. It is not totally “efficient,” but there should be a buffer between the risk target and the risk appetite. That buffer allows for the fact that we do not control and may not even immediately notice all of the things that might cause our risk level to fluctuate, but we need a risk target because risk appetite is really the border that we hope not to cross.

Dave Ingram

Profile picture for user DaveIngram

Dave Ingram

Dave Ingram is a member of Willis Re's analytics team based in New York. He assists clients with developing their first ORSA (own risk and solvency assessment), presenting their ERM programs to rating agencies, developing and enhancing ERM programs and developing and using economic capital models.


Read More