Santa’s Impact on Business and Finance

Just as Santa Claus brings gifts down chimneys, his name alone also carries the stigma of risks that transcend all industries. Indeed, thanks to the logistics of his job we better understand the risks of reindeer-led aviation. But perhaps more importantly, Kris Kringle’s presence has long influenced finance and business.

Mentioning him on Wall Street this year may trigger an underlying wealth management risk. The annual “Santa Claus Rally” marks an uptick in the stock market and a 1.4% average return of the S&P 500 index from the last five trading days of the year through the first two of January. This phenomenon can be attributable to people spending and investing a bit extra – possibly from holiday bonuses – leading to a generally happy mood on and off trading room floors.

Since 1950, the market has declined only 15 times during the Santa Claus Rally period. But due to the uncertainty surrounding the tax reform plan making its way through Congress, that 1-in-4.4 chance of downturn is on the minds of cynical investors. As reported recently by Investopedia, “Some bears think that, if Congress fails to make appreciable progress on tax reform before their holiday recess, Scrooge or Krampus will elbow Santa aside, and send the markets downward at year-end.”

And similar to the way Punxatawney Phil seeing his shadow on Groundhog Day can predict six more weeks of winter, Santa skipping stock exchanges’ chimneys may indicate a frosty new year. According to The Stock Trader’s Almanac, some of the more recent holiday seasons without a rally included the last two, as well as in late 2007 and early 2008 leading up to the financial crisis, and just before the dotcom bubble burst in the 1999-2000 holiday period.

Santa’s influence isn’t just relegated to stock speculation and short-term investments, however. Some executives and employees may emulate his work ethic without realizing it. All eyes turn to him in good times and especially during the bad. He’s trying to meet year-end quotas while keeping a workforce happy and focused. Plus, Santa has the burden of trans-meridian travel with frequent stops over a 24-hour period, which is sure to cause jet lag. Sound familiar?

While one all-nighter might not have major long-term effects, regular ones could lead to shift work disorder, which has been linked to chronic diseases and illnesses. Anyone known to “Santa Claus it” too frequently may accumulate a large “sleep debt” over time. According to the Sleep Foundation, “if you work at night, you’re also going against your biological clock, which is naturally cueing you to become less alert and encouraging you to sleep during the nighttime hours.”

This can lead to seasonal “presenteeism,” an issue Risk Management magazine recently explored, detailing pain management in the workforce. Presenteeism occurs when a worker inhabits a space at their job, but “is unable to focus and perform as expected” and can be an even greater drag on productivity than absenteeism. The condition is indiscriminate – it can affect interns and CEOs – and may cause someone to “miss out not only on the income, but also the sense of meaning, purposefulness and belonging that can be gained from a job. Initial distress may lead to chronic anxiety and even depression.”

Identify these risks now, so that the mention of Santa Claus doesn’t put a humbug in your eggnog this holiday season.

In a Changing World, Questions For the CRO

Before the financial crisis in 2008-2009, many businesses didn’t think of risk as something to be proactively managed. After the crisis, however, that paradigm shifted. Companies began perceiving risk management as a way to protect both their reputations and their stakeholders.

Today, risk management is not just recommended, it is considered crucial to successful operations and is required by federal and state law. The SEC’s Proxy Disclosure Enhancements, enacted in 2010, mandate that organizations provide information regarding board leadership structure and the company’s risk management practices. Company leadership is required to have a direct role in risk oversight, and any risk management ineffectiveness must be disclosed.

The CRO’s role

Volatility in the current business environment—a confluence of factors including transfers of power, the world economy and individual markets—is nothing new. Political transitions have always been accompanied by new agendas and shifting regulations, economies have always experienced bull and bear markets, and the evolution of technology constantly changes our processes.

Even so, recent events like Brexit, the uncertainty of a new administration’s regulatory initiatives, and thousands of annual data breaches have contributed to an unprecedented atmosphere of fear and doubt. To navigate this environment, the chief risk officer needs to adopt a proactive risk management approach. Enterprise-wide risk assessments grant the visibility and insight needed to present an accurate picture of the company’s greatest risks. This visibility is what the board needs to safely recognize opportunity for innovation and expansion into new markets.

To grow a business safely—by innovating and adding to products/services and expanding into new markets—risk professionals should not focus on identifying risk by individual country. This approach naturally leads to a prioritization of “large-dollar” countries, which aren’t necessarily correlated with greater risk. Countries that contribute a small percentage of overall revenue can still cause major, systemic risk management failures and scandals.

A better approach is to look at risk across certain regions; how might expanding the business into Europe, for example, create new challenges for senior management? Are there sufficient controls in place to mitigate the risks that have been identified?

When regional risks are aggregated to create a holistic picture, it becomes possible for the board to make sure expansion efforts are aligned with strategic goals.

Three processes that require ERM

Risk management is an objective process, and best practices, such as pushing risk assessments down to front-line process owners who are closest to operational risk, should be adhered to regardless of the current state of the international business arena.

While today’s political climate has generated a significant amount of media strife, it’s important not to let emotion influence decision-making. By providing the host organization with a standardized framework and centralized data location, enterprise risk management enables managers to apply the same basic approach across departments and levels.

This is particularly important when an organization expands internationally, which involves compliance with new sets of regulations and staying competitive. Performing due diligence on an ad hoc basis is neither effective nor sustainable. Instead, the process should follow the same best-practice process as domestic risk management efforts:

  1. Identify and assess. Make risk assessments a standard part of every budget, project or initiative. This involves front-line risk assessments from subject matter experts, revealing key risks and processes/departments likely to be affected by those risks. For example, financial scrutiny is no longer a concern just for banks. Increased attempts to fight terrorism mean transactions of all kinds are becoming subject to more review. Anti-bribery and anti-corruption processes estimate and quantify both vulnerability and liability.
  2. Mitigate key risks. Connect mitigation activities to the resources they depend on and the processes they’re associated with. ERM creates transparency into this information, eliminating inefficiency associated with updating/tracking risks managed by another department. Control evaluation is the most expensive part of operations. Use risk management to prioritize this work and reduce expenses and liability.
  3. Monitor the effectiveness of controls with tests, metrics, and incident collection for risks and controls alike. This ensures performance standards are maintained as operations and the business environment evolve. Evidence of an effective control environment prevents penalties and lawsuits for negligence. The bar for negligence is getting lower; technology is pulling the curtain back not only internally but (through social media and news) to the public as well.

Lastly, the CRO role is increasingly accountable for failures in managing risk along with other senior leaders and boards—look no further than Wells Fargo.

Greenberg, New York State Settle Long-Running Civil Case

One of Wall Street’s longest-running dramas closed Feb. 10 as New York State and Maurice “Hank” Greenberg finally ended a legal clash which began in 2005 under the stewardship of then Attorney General Elliot Spitzer.

Former American International Group, Inc. CEO Greenberg and the Attorney General’s office reached a settlement over accusations that the company engaged in fraudulent transactions to boost reserves and hide losses.

Greenberg, who was chairman and CEO of AIG from 1967 until his ouster in 2005 and now serves as chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Co., will pay some $9 million to end his role in the saga. Also, Howard Smith, former AIG CFO and Greenberg’s lieutenant will pay $900,000 to settle the charges stemming from two alleged transactions designed to misrepresent company finances.

This included a $500 million deal in the year 2000 with reinsurer General Re, part of businessman Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., to pad AIG’s loss reserves. Greenberg allegedly initiated the Gen Re deal with a call to the company’s CEO.

The two former AIG leaders were also said to be involved in a deal with Capco Reinsurance Co., which masked a $210 million underwriting loss as an investment loss.

The sums paid by the men are related to performance bonuses earned from 2001 to 2004, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who inherited the long-running conflict. Schneiderman sought to ban the men from the securities industry and from serving as directors and officers of public companies as part of the settlement, which ultimately did not include these provisions.

Schneiderman had previously dropped a $6 billion damage claim against Greenberg and others, once a class action settlement was approved in 2013 under which Greenberg paid $115 million to AIG shareholders.

A 2009 settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over charges related to AIG‘s accounting saw Greenberg pay $15 million and Smith $1.5 million to the agency.

Late last year Greenberg and the Attorney General’s office turned to mediation after trial testimony had already begun in state court. The mediation, which ultimately produced the settlement, was run by alternative dispute resolution specialist Kenneth Feinberg.

The finale to the case was perhaps more of a whimper than a bang, with settlements hardly headline-grabbing and no one admitting to much more than accounting slips.

In a press release from the N.Y. State Attorney General’s Office, Schneiderman sounded a triumphant tone. “Today’s agreement settles the indisputable fact that Mr. Greenberg has denied for 12 years: that Mr. Greenberg orchestrated two transactions that fundamentally misrepresented AIG’s finances,” Schneiderman said in the statement. “After over a decade of delays, deflections, and denials by Mr. Greenberg, we are pleased that Mr. Greenberg has finally admitted to his role in these fraudulent transactions and will personally pay $9 million to the State of New York.”

Greenberg, who was unapologetic, in his statement said, “The Gen Re transaction was done for the purpose of increasing AIG’s loss reserves, and the Capco transaction was done for the purpose of converting underwriting losses into investment losses. I knew these facts at the time that I initiated, participated in and approved these two transactions…As a result of these transactions, AIG’s publicly-filed consolidated financial statements inaccurately portrayed the accounting, and thus the financial condition and performance for AIG’s loss reserves and underwriting income.”

The pundits had their say as well, split as to what it all meant.

“The taxpayers of New York State should be furious,” said the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot, editorial page editor. “The $9 million fine amounts to pin money for Mr. Greenberg…It won’t come close to covering the state’s costs for pursuing the case over so many years…The real lessons of the Greenberg case start with the absurd lengths that progressive prosecutors will go to punish capitalists they don’t like,” Gigot said.

Mr. Greenberg’s lawyer David Bois called the deal with the Attorney General a “nuisance settlement,” according to the New York Times.

Others were less forgiving of Mr. Greenberg. “Just because he hasn’t pled guilty to fraud doesn’t mean he’s been vindicated,” David Schiff, a former insurance analyst who followed AIG, told the Times.

Can ORSA Work For All Businesses?

In addition to impacting the way countless organizations conduct business, the 2008 financial crisis was an awakening for regulators charged with reviewing and setting the rules that shape the way organizations assume risk. Insurance, perhaps the riskiest business of them all, did not go unscathed.

Not only are insurers responsible for managing their own internal risks, but careful calculations and guidelines are built into their business models to ensure that the risks fall within set parameters. Regulators will argue, however, that this wasn’t always the case.

Own Risk Solvency Assessment (ORSA) was adopted and now serves as an internal process for insurers to assess their risk management processes and make sure that, under severe scenarios, they remains solvent.

U.S. insurers required to perform an ORSA must file a confidential summary report with their lead state’s department of insurance.  The assessment aims to demonstrate and document the insurer’s ability to:

  • Withstand financial and economic stress with a quantitative and qualitative assessment of exposures
  • Effectively apply enterprise risk management (ERM) to support decisions
  • Provide insights and assurance to external stakeholders

While ORSA is requirement for insurers, a new study by RIMS and the Property Casualty Insurers Association, Communicating the Value of Enterprise Risk Management: The Benefits of Developing an Own Risk and Solvency Assessment Report, maintains that ORSA can be used for all organizations looking to strengthen their ERM function.

According to the report:

Whether or not required by regulation or standard-setting bodies, documenting the following internal practices is a worthwhile endeavor for any company in any sector to utilize in their goal to preserve and create value:

  • Enterprise risk management capabilities

  • A solid understanding of the risks that can occur at catastrophic levels related to the chosen strategy

  • Validation that the entity has adequately considered such risks and has plans in place to address those risks and remain viable.

The connection between the ORSA regulation imposed on insurers and the development of an ERM program within an organization outside of the insurance industry is apparent.

ORSA and ERM both require the organization to strengthen communication between business functions. Breaking down those silos are key to uncovering business risk, but perhaps more importantly, is the interconnectedness of those risks.

Secondly, similar to ERM in non-insurance companies, ORSA requires risk management to document its findings, processes and strategies. Such documentation allows for the process of managing risks to be effectively communicated to operations, senior leadership, regulators and stakeholders. Additionally, documentation enhances monitoring efforts, the ability to make changes to the program and is a benefit that allows ERM to reach a “repeatable” maturity level as defined by the RIMS Risk Maturity Model.

Developing an ERM program has become a priority for many organizations as senior leaders recognize the value of having their entire organization thinking, talking and incorporating risk management into their work. Examining and implementing ORSA strategies can be an effective way for risk professionals to get their ERM program off the ground and operational.