What is 'Risk Shifting'

Risk shifting is the transfer of risk to another party. Risk shifting has many connotations, the most common being the tendency of a company or financial institution facing financial distress to take on excessive risk. This high-risk behavior is typically undertaken with the objective of generating high rewards for equity owners — who face little additional downside risk, but may garner significant extra return — and has the effect of shifting risk from shareholders to debt holders.

Risk shifting also occurs when a company changes from offering employees a defined benefit plan to offering a defined contribution plan. In this case, the risk associated with pensions has shifted from the company to its employees.

BREAKING DOWN 'Risk Shifting'

Risk shifting for a troubled company with significant debt occurs because, as its shareholders’ equity decreases, the stake of debt holders in the enterprise increases. Thus, if the company takes on more risk, the potential extra profits accrue to the shareholders, while the downside risk falls to the debt holders, which means that risk has shifted from the former to the latter.

Since management is not liable for losses incurred, financial institutions in potential or actual distress often engage in risky lending, which can negatively impact an economy by fueling asset bubbles and banking crises. (For more, see: How Do Asset Bubbles Cause Recessions?)

Risk Shifting Example

In a research paper from October 2011, the International Monetary Fund cites New Century Financial — a large subprime originator — as a classic example of risk shifting. The IMF paper notes the Federal Reserve’s tightening of monetary policy in 2004 resulted in an “adverse shock” to New Century’s large portfolio of loans it was holding for investment. New Century responded to this shock by resorting to the large-scale peddling of "interest-only" loans, which were riskier and more sensitive to real estate prices than standard loans.

This risk shifting behavior was also apparent in the business practices of other subprime mortgage loan originators, which fueled the U.S. housing bubble in the first decade of the 2000s, the subsequent collapse of which caused the most significant global banking crisis and recession since the 1930s.

Risk Shifting Alternatives

Risk management may be preferable to risk shifting by distressed companies and institutions. The risk management strategy focuses on balancing risk and returns to generate cash flow that is sufficient to meet financial obligations, rather than taking the “shoot the lights out” approach of risk shifting. Companies have faced stricter regulation since the Great Recession to encourage a more prudent approach to managing risk.

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