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risk3

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Leap and the net shall appear beneath thee – Zen

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I wish I could agree with this bit of Zen philosophy but it sounds like an elder bully cousin I had when I was five, who insisted I jump from a parapet wall onto a thorn bush. I’d find a ‘money tree’ there, he said. I was a fiscal conservative and I refused.

Frankly, I wouldn’t count on there being a net every time I take a risk of some sort. But then, maybe Zen meant taking a ‘calculated leap’ and not just into thin air.

I face risks every day, from breakfast to bedtime. If I take a stroll through the streets of Montreal, there is a chance that I’ll get hit by a car. The odds? Maybe one in ten million?

What about you? What risks are you taking today? Are you driving? Will that 18-wheeler ahead of you be able to clear that low hung archway ahead or will the top of the trailer come crashing down on you? Are you drinking and driving? Are you smooching and driving, texting and driving, getting orally serviced while driving? I had to put that in (pardon the pun).

The chances of something bad happening to you are maybe one in many millions but then, there are many millions of people like you on the road today. It is virtually certain that someone will die in an automobile accident before the sun goes down. It could just as well be you, though I fervently hope it isn’t, since you are one of the handful of my regular readers. My list of followers is precarious. It’s not like Jennifer Lopez’s butt cheeks – limitless. It is like Jennifer Lopez’s neckline – plunging. I cannot afford a drop in readership.

The word ‘risk’ has a negative connotation, while the word ‘chance’ signifies something positive, though only as a matter of feel. If you walk out into the street to go buy a lottery ticket, the risk of getting run over by a rash driver may be one in 10 million, while the chance that you might win the lottery may also be one in 10 million. Therefore it may be safely assumed that the risk of dying from a lottery ticket purchase is one in 10 million and death from a lottery win – one in 20 million. Cool, huh?

That wasn’t original. (I heard it in a recent lecture by a blabbermouth management consultant at work). Nothing in this blog is original. Except my awesomeness, my sharp intellect, the contents of my safe deposit vault – and of course, my looks. You should see the queue of blondes outside my front door. I call them ‘Spunkybunnies’. If it wasn’t for that Persian woman who lives in my house, they’d have broken in by now and had their way with me.

But this piece isn’t about spunkybunnies, okay? It is about risks that we all take in our lives. We all take those one-in-10 million risks and chances every day. Being ridiculously cautious would paralyse us, so we knowingly take the risks all the time.

There are different types of risks – The first, like the kind that folks like Chris Hunter and Karina Hollekim (See Part-1) take – cold and calculated, taken not for monetary gain but simply to experience the feeling of being on the edge, while at the same time avoiding being labelled as an adrenaline junkie, by justifying the dare-devilry with some purpose, in Hunter’s case – the ‘war on terror’ and in James Foley’s case (See Part-1)  – ‘raising public awareness’.

Then there is the chronic risk, like being a couch potato and living on fries and burgers, increasing the chances of cardiac arrest. When we smoke we run the chronic risk of contracting lung cancer over time. If a cigarette could kill instantaneously, no one would smoke.

Chronic risks are slow acting and won’t kill you on the spot like accidental risks. Like smoking, they will surely kill you gradually, over time.

Likewise different activities have their own risk factors attached : White water rafting – one in 250,000 excursions, Scuba diving – one in 220,000 dives, Sky diving – one in 110,000 dives, Base jumping – one in 50,000 jumps, Ski base jumping – one in 25,000 jumps, Rock climbing – one in 15,000 ascents, Bomb disposal – one in 10,000 attempts, Everest ascent – one in 75 successful ascents and so on.

In an effort to quantify the risk of fatality for various pursuits, a guy called Ronald A. Howard has created a unit called a micromort, which is a one-in-million chance of death. Thus, when you peg the risk of being a Chris Hunter(See Part-1), blown apart while diffusing a bomb as 100 micromorts, that means one in 10,000.

An OSS agent, parachuting into occupied France during World War-2 would be skating along a 500,000 micromort level of danger (ie: one in two chances of being captured), given that the French resistance had been thoroughly penetrated by the Germans. A CIA black operative, attempting to inveigle himself inside the tribal society of the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, would stand the same perilous chance of survival as his wartime OSS predecessors did in France.

There is of course a number beyond which the lay person begins to worry about his chances of coming out alive from anything and that would be a risk level of more than 10 micromorts (ie: a one in 100,000 chance of survival). 99 out of 100 folks won’t go beyond the 10-micromort danger level.

Then there is the accidental risk, the one where in the morning you’re fine and by the evening you’re dead – from a motorcycle accident or from being run over by a bus or something. You have no premonition and someone else is responsible for your demise, not you. You think that that cannot be termed a risk, but you’re wrong. It is, because of the fact that you could have avoided it by staying home. Instead, you chose to put yourself in harm’s way by stepping out. You are responsible.

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Of course, facing death is not the only kind of risk in the world. You could lose all your investments for instance and go broke and be forced to live the rest of your life in a homeless shelter. Or be a crooked trader and cause billions in losses. Like Nick Leeson did.

Nicholas William “Nick” Leeson was a Singapore-based derivatives broker at the UK’s oldest investment bank, the Barings Bank. He took spectacular risks in unauthorised speculative trading, which by the spring of 1992, made him the bank’s rising star, delivering huge profits out of his trades. By that winter his investments and trades and turned sour and by 1995, Barings Bank had declared insolvency with a loss of £1.1 billion. Leeson went to prison and his wife left him.

There, at the Singapore stock exchange, Nick Leeson took risks, like every other stock trader does. However, Nick’s risks were supposed to be ‘qualified’ and ‘hedged’, which means that the potential for loss was limited, but they were not. His trades were audacious and attempted to manipulate the market, exposing the bank massively to the market’s nuances.

At the same time, there were a number of ‘systemic’ issues with Barings Bank at the time, that allowed Leeson to carry on doing what he was doing, without proper oversight. The exposure that Leeson took just kept blowing up until it became many times the bank’s capital.

While in prison, in 1996, Leeson published an autobiography detailing his spectacular tailspin into hell – Rogue Trader: How I Brought Down Barings Bank and Shook the Financial World. I haven’t had a chance to read it. I’m bored with high finance. I only love a book that has Messers Smith and Wesson in it or a movie that has a destitute Scarlett Johanssen with no dough for clothes.

A review of Rogue Trader in the New York Times stated, “This is a dreary book, written by a young man very taken with himself, but it ought to be read by banking managers and auditors everywhere.” In 1999, the book was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor and Anna Friel. Like Leeson’s life in Singapore, the film too bombed at the box office.

Nick Leeson was only 32 when he came out of prison. Youth helped. Incarceration led to introspection. Sometime during his prison stay, he was diagnosed with colon cancer but it went into remission and hasn’t surfaced back up so far. He turned his life around, quickly regaining respectability, remarrying and settling down with his second wife in the west of Ireland. He is a regular guest on the after-dinner and keynote speaking circuit and occasional guest lecturer at the nearby National University of Ireland. He still deals in the stock and currency markets, but only with his own money.

The former American President Jimmy Carter once said, “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”  Yeah, sure. Former First Lady, the late Eleanor Roosevelt went even further. “Do at least one thing every day that scares you,” she exhorted.

Sure, Ma’am. The world already does – relying on the American banking system.

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