Goldman slashes risk-taking in commodities

July 20, 2010

John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own

Goldman Sachs cut the amount of risk it staked on commodity trading during Q2 2010 by almost 35 percent, part of a broad-based reduction in risk across the bank’s trading book. Value-at-risk (VaR) linked to commodity prices fell to an average of just $32 million per day between April and June, down from $49 million in the prior quarter and $40 million in the same period a year earlier, according to the firm’s earnings release. Cuts in VaR allocated to commodities were in line with reductions elsewhere, including interest rate risk (down just over 20 percent) and equities (down just over 30 percent). Only currency trading saw a slight increase in risk taking (up 3 percent). Commodity VaR was reduced to its lowest level since the three months ended September 2009, and before that November 2007.

Goldman has been reducing firm-wide VaR (net of diversification) since the middle of 2009 — shortly after the firm converted to Bank Holding Company (BHC) status regulated by the Federal Reserve, subsequently changed to Financial Holding Company (FHC) status, rather than its previous incarnation as a securities firm. Gross VaR (excluding diversification) started dropping after Q3 2009 (when it peaked at a massive $416 million). Gross VaR now stands at a more modest $272 million (down 35 percent). The firm’s massive interest rate risk (which peaked at $218 million in Q1 2009) has been cut to less than half that ($87 million in Q2 2010). But the April-June quarter was the first time the de-risking process had extending to commodities.To some extent, VaR is endogenous. Unless position limits are changed to offset it, VaR naturally rises and falls with market volatility. But firms can always over-ride fixed limits to keep VaR “budgets” unchanged despite changes in volatility if managers decide it is worthwhile.

What is notable is that market volatility rose during Q2 2010 in most asset classes (including commodities) after a quiet Q1. Yet Goldman’s VaR measures declined almost across the board, suggesting a deliberate policy to cut risk. Opportunities to generate revenue by taking market risk appear to be declining across the company’s trading operations. One crude measure of the firm’s “trading efficiency” is the amount of dollars it generates in net revenue for every $1 put at risk (VaR). Trading efficiency peaked at $46 for every $1 risked at the start of 2007 and has never recovered to the same level. Efficiency in Q2 2010 was just 24:1, down from 32:1 in the prior quarter, and less than half the peak (Charts 4 and 5).

While efficiency has improved since the dark days of the crisis, it is nowhere near the levels achieved prior to 2007, even though management has started to dial back risk-taking. The company’s earnings releases indicate management has been gradually cutting VaR and tightening risk budgets as profitable opportunities have become scarce. The general retrenchment or consolidation finally reached commodity desks in Q2.

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