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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Webster

Treasury credit risk

With overnight rates being 0.50% or lower how do you manage excess liquidity? A question many treasuries now face and one that’s unlikely to diminish. There is no easy answer. Small firms are particularly vulnerable, this is why.

The temptation is to seek assets with more yield - usually bonds. The additional return is the reward for liquidity, market and credit exposures.

Recent focus has been on the first two. But history tells us credit risk is where real losses occur. It’s therefore worth considering the process of credit approval. How does this work in treasury?

In the interest of “segregation” credit analysis and approval is normally outside treasury. This is however deceptive and provides false comfort.

A major problem is “skin in the game”. Credit analysts often act in an advisory capacity. They don’t experience the P&L implications of their decisions.

In a bank the credit department was asked, for a fee, to underwrite the risk on treasury assets. No surprise that previously acceptable investments became prohibitively expensive to insure.

In other words “I will put your money to work in the casino but not my own”.

If we acknowledge this inherent weakness in the way credit is approved where do we go from here?

Surely we need to ask why there is excess liquidity burning a hole in our pockets. Is there something we can do in the core business that can alleviate the problem?

Short run solutions through treasury “investments” are fraught with difficulty. After all most dealers are unlikely claim “credit” as a skill so it’s remarkable that we expect them to identify what is rich and cheap in the credit sphere.

By definition credit spread risk requires skills and the capacity to absorb losses. It’s the domain of large banks. Even then things can go badly wrong.

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