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Perspectives from Asia: Corporate Risk Management

by Ben Higgin, Director, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Hong Kong

During the current period of global economic turmoil, corporates in Asia have not been immune to the crisis. High profile losses towards the end of 2008 suggest that some companies’ hedging strategies have not worked. Consequently, many firms in Asia, as in other parts of the world, have started to review their hedging activities and in some cases simplified their approach. However, while we recommend that companies seek continual improvement in their internal processes and controls, technology and risk management strategy, the current market volatility means that corporate treasurers should still be looking carefully at how the use of derivatives can protect the business from risk.

Back to Basics: Risk Appetite

Companies in Asia, including those acting as regional treasury centres for North American or European multinational corporations, are increasingly taking a “back to basics” approach to their hedging strategy. This involves going back to the fundamentals of the business, identifying the risks to which they are exposed, reviewing the financial products they are using to mitigate these risks, and assessing any additional risks that these products create. This review process is something that often needs to take place at Board level. There will generally be a range of risks to which the Board is prepared to be exposed, and degrees of magnitude of financial risk deemed acceptable, which will differ across companies depending on the industry and interests of shareholders. Whatever the risk appetite of a business, a clear definition of risk appetite is essential in order to compose an appropriate risk management policy.

Simplifying Hedging Strategy

Media coverage of derivatives as “weapons of mass financial destruction”, according to one commentator, has resulted in many firms embarking on a flight to simplicity by reducing their use of derivatives for hedging. However, reducing companies’ risk protection can, in some cases, expose the company to far greater risks than the hedging instruments themselves would do. So long as derivatives are well-understood and used appropriately, they are important means of hedging risk. Some firms have even stopped hedging altogether. Although this approach eliminates derivative risks, these companies are obviously entirely exposed to financial and market risks.

Focus on Staffing and Systems

In addition to reviewing, and potentially revising the company’s risk management strategy, many treasurers are also assessing the staffing and systems that they have in place. For example, treasury needs to have the skills and technical capability in place commensurate with the complexity of their risk management approach. If a company is using FX options, for example, treasury needs the staffing and systems to understand, value and explain the use of these instruments. Many companies in Asia have a 31 December financial year end, and many treasurers, and their auditors, found the audit process more difficult this year. With financial risks often greater than in previous years, with far higher levels of volatility and more complex derivatives in the market, the need for companies to have the right staffing and systems in place will be vital to a smooth audit.