Stress and Stress Modeling

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?”
(Ps 8:3-4)

Stress and Stress Modeling

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At some point in 1991, the Office of Financial Analysis (OFA) in the Farm Credit Administration (FCA) was re-organized and placed under the Office of Examination (OE). The objective of the economics group shifted from policy research to risk analysis and support for the examination function. To facilitate this transition, OE offered examination training to anyone interested in taking it and I signed up for all the training that I could get. Because I knew nothing about the examination function, I could only support it if I learned what it was. Over the next year, I spent as much as two weeks a month taking training courses offered both internally by examination supervisors and externally, often at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC’s) L. William Seidman [training] Center.

While policy research focused heavily on legislative and regulatory performance, examination focused on the financial performance of Farm Credit System associations and banks. A typical association examination might last 2-3 weeks, depending on the chief examiner’s off-site risk analysis. Because the primary business of the associations was making agricultural production and farm real estate loans, much of this time was devoted to reviewing individual loan files to see if they conformed to association policies and FCA regulations, and rating loans as to their credit status. FCA examiners were typically credit and interest rate experts, knowing the business of agricultural lending almost as well as the lending officers themselves.

By contrast, FCA economists typically focused on market conditions and financial performance in the aggregate, not being nearly so focused on the business side of the associations. Assigning us to support the examination function was hugely educational, but it was also forced us to play by unfamiliar rules with unfamiliar staff. My plunge into examination training, of course, helped alleviate this problem, but the threat of failure was ever-present and my own paranoia was stroked when we were assigned interior offices half the size of the offices we were accustomed to.

One morning in June 1992, a stranger walked into my office and announced that I had been RIFed. RIF stands for reduction in force and usually meant that your position had been eliminated. In the middle of this stressful conversation, he told me that when human resources reviewed my file they discovered that I had more examination training than many of their professional examiners. Consequently, while my economics position was eliminated, I was being offered a position in the McLean examination team at my current salary and I had two years to complete certification as an examiner. If I completed the certification, I would retain my salary and begin a new career as an FCA examiner. So with two kids in diapers and my wife, Maryam, six months pregnant with my son, that morning I began a new career in examination. I ended up traveling about 80 percent of the time.

At the time when this RIF occurred, I was working as an analyst attached to a new Office of Secondary Market Oversight (OSMO), tasked with supervising Farmer Mac. OSMO consisted of a director, an analyst (me), and a secretary. OSMO’s budget was cut roughly in half that year leaving no room for an analyst at a critical time—OSMO was tasked with building a stress model for Farmer Mac which by law had to be made available for public review. While I built a balance sheet and income statement model in Excel for this purpose, public release suggested a more formal approach. Consequently, I proposed to program this stress model in the C programming language built on the Windows operating system. The director liked this proposal and sent me out for training in C and in Windows programming.

My RIF initially slowed progress in developing a Farmer Mac stress model, but after a time on the road it became obvious that van travel consumed a substantial portion of the work week on examination. And what do you do in the evening in a hotel? I proposed to the OSMO director to program the stress model during such down-time and the director arranged for me to get one of the first laptops available in FCA. At the time, even exam managers did not have laptops and my laptop was the envy of my new peers and managers. The first version of the Farmer Mac stress model was completed while riding in the back of a van in rural Virginia.

After several months of examination work in the McLean team, I applied for a licensing position in the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in the Department of Treasury. I succeeded in interviewing for the position because the position required working closely with licensing analysts who were typically certified national bank examiners. Ironically, my credit experience working as an FCA examiner helped me land this new position.

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