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The Risky Game of Credit Underwriting

The Risky Game of Credit Underwriting

Credit underwriting decisions are a cornerstone of any economy. Made wisely, they can assist entrepreneurship, promote economic growth, and generally ensure that capital is allocated to its highest and best use. On the other hand, poor credit underwriting decisions can negatively impact an industry or the economy as a whole.  Recent troubles in the U.S. economy are directly tied to the poor credit decisions of lenders to support prospective home owners who had little money and provided little information about their financial strength in an over-inflated housing environment. Recent failures of banks such as IndyMac are partly tied to poor credit underwriting decisions and over-leveraging.  The failure of banks to consider the full range of construction risk is leaving many banks high and dry due to the recent spate of construction business failures, with many more to come. The five consecutive years of recent losses in the surety industry was directly related to poor credit underwriting decisions. With all of these losses you have to wonder what is going wrong. The answer is twofold: an unusually high tolerance for risk and credit decisions based upon insufficient data.

Creditors

In the case of mortgages that went bad, because loans could be packaged and resold, an anything goes atmosphere developed and many risk management practices were thrown out the window. Many loans were provided based on simple applications that provided minimal financial information. The fallout of this lending environment is showcased on Mortgage Lender Implode-o-Meter. In the case of IndyMac, a large portfolio of non-performing Alt-A loans, sometimes called liar loans, and risky construction and land development lending, left the bank with very little cushion in a falling housing market. Other banks impacted by losses only relied on financial data, failing to consider all the risks of lending to high risk industries such as construction and auto dealerships.

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Yin and Yang of Credit Underwriting

Yin and Yang of Credit Underwriting

This title seems especially appropriate following the recent Beijing Olympics. But today we are not talking about Chinese culture, we are talking about qualitative data and quantitative data, risk data and financial data, causes for success and causes for failure. What do these have in common? As the Chinese definition goes, they are two complimentary qualities that, when put together, form the whole.

Yin-yang Symbol

At the end of the day, business is about achieving profitability, which is defined as the ability of an enterprise to generate revenues in excess of the costs incurred to produce those revenues and is often measured by a rate of profit or rate of return on investment. Credit underwriters also seek to achieve profitability, and that means avoiding large, unforeseen losses. To maximize profitability, underwriters need to find the optimal balance between premiums charged and risk present.

Unfortunately, as discussed in The Risky Game of Credit Underwriting, underwriters are often working with insufficient, inadequate, or obsolete data so measuring the “risk present” becomes quite a tall order, and many times involves outright guessing. They have no way of knowing where the applicant lies in the ERM – Business Success Matrix. Fortunately, with the advent of a standardized mean to collect and analyze qualitative data, most of these underwriting deficiencies can be overcome. In this post, we’ll discuss how qualitative and quantitative data fit together to form a complete picture of an applicant during the credit underwriting process.

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Construction Risk Factors – Ignore at Your Own Peril

Construction Risk Factors – Ignore at Your Own Peril

“These factors don’t matter.” Those were the words I heard after presenting a contractor with a proven list of over 65 risk factors that can impact a construction company’s ability to make a profit.  He gave the list back to me with 20 risk factors circled and told be the rest were of no consequence. If I hadn’t previously run a number of construction companies and closely observed hundreds more, his words may have cast doubt.  But I knew better.  Some risk factors are certainly less important than others, but they all can play a roll in causing business failure; even seemingly unimportant risk factors can interact with one another to have a large impact.

With respect to business, a risk factor is defined as an activity, practice or condition that can cause financial harm. Risk factors vary by industry.  For example, smoking is a risk factor in the medical world, specifically related to the health of an individual. It does not apply to a construction business. Likewise, failing to have a job cost system in place is a risk factor related to a construction business, but certainly is not a risk to an individual. Risk factors are also different across businesses. A risk factor related to overstocking perishables in a restaurant due to poor inventory control does not apply to construction. Poor humidity control is a risk factor in a flower shop but not in a restaurant.

As you can imagine, there are many different types of risk factors and for the most part they are specific to an industry.  Some risk factors are really important because the harm they can cause is great.  Other risk factors are of lesser importance because the harm they can cause is not so great, thus having a smaller impact. To actually determine the impact a risk factor can have (its importance), takes years of case study. But suffice it to say, importance varies.

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