The New York Times published an article on the role of VaR (Value at Risk) financial models in the current fiscal crisis:

VaR isn’t one model but rather a group of related models that share a mathematical framework. In its most common form, it measures the boundaries of risk in a portfolio over short durations, assuming a “normal” market. For instance, if you have $50 million of weekly VaR, that means that over the course of the next week, there is a 99 percent chance that your portfolio won’t lose more than $50 million. That portfolio could consist of equities, bonds, derivatives or all of the above; one reason VaR became so popular is that it is the only commonly used risk measure that can be applied to just about any asset class. And it takes into account a head-spinning variety of variables, including diversification, leverage and volatility, that make up the kind of market risk that traders and firms face every day.

Another reason VaR is so appealing is that it can measure both individual risks — the amount of risk contained in a single trader’s portfolio, for instance — and firmwide risk, which it does by combining the VaRs of a given firm’s trading desks and coming up with a net number. Top executives usually know their firm’s daily VaR within minutes of the market’s close.

As you might expect of a discussion of complicated statistical modeling in the mainstream press, the story oversimplifies and comes up a little short. Naked Capitalism does a good job picking the article apart in “Woefully Misleading Piece on Value at Risk in New York Times” – essentially the article make the classic mistake of assuming everything is normally distributed (the ludic fallacy):

Now when I say it is well known that trading markets do not exhibit Gaussian distributions, I mean it is REALLY well known. At around the time when the ideas of financial economists were being developed and taking hold (and key to their work was the idea that security prices were normally distributed), mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot learned that cotton had an unusually long price history (100 years of daily prices). Mandelbrot cut the data, and no matter what time period one used, the results were NOT normally distributed. His findings were initially pooh-poohed, but they have been confirmed repeatedly. Yet the math on which risk management and portfolio construction rests assumes a normal distribution!

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It similarly does not occur to Nocera to question the “one size fits all” approach to VaR. The same normal distribution is assumed for all asset types, when as we noted earlier, different types of investments exhibit different types of skewness. The fact that VaR allows for comparisons across investment types via force-fitting gets nary a mention.

He also fails to plumb the idea that reducing as complicated a matter as risk management of internationally-traded multii-assets to a single metric is just plain dopey. No single construct can be adequate. Accordingly, large firms rely on multiple tools, although Nocera never mentions them. However, the group that does rely unduly on VaR as a proxy for risk is financial regulators. I have been told that banks would rather make less use of VaR, but its popularity among central bankers and other overseers means that firms need to keep it as a central metric.

Similarly, false confidence in VaR has meant that it has become a crutch. Rather than attempting to develop sufficient competence to enable them to have a better understanding of the issues and techniques involved in risk management and measurement (which would clearly require some staffers to have high-level math skills), regulators instead take false comfort in a single number that greatly understates the risk they should be most worried about, that of a major blow-up.