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Spreadsheet Risks in Banks

No other industry perhaps handles such large volumes of critical financial data more than the banking industry. For decades now, spreadsheets have become permanent fixtures in the front-line reporting tool sets of banks, providing organized information when and where needed.

But as banks enter into a period of heightened credit risks, elevated levels of fraud, and greater regulatory scrutiny, many are wondering if continued reliance on spreadsheets is a wise decision for banks today.

The downfall of Lehman Brothers which eventually led to its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008, served as a wake up call for many institutions across the globe to make a serious examination of their own risk management practices. But would these reforms include evaluating the security of user developed applications (UDAs), the most common of which are spreadsheets, and putting specific guidelines as to when they can – or cannot be – used?

Banks and Spreadsheet Use

Banks have been known to utilize spreadsheets systems for many critical functions because most personnel are well-acquainted with them, and the freedom of being able to develop customized reports without needing to consult with the IT department offers flexibility and convenience. In fact, more than having a way to do financial budgeting and analyzing customer profitability, even loan officers and trade managers have become reliant on spreadsheets for risk management reporting and for making underwriting decisions.

But there are more than a few drawbacks to using spreadsheets for these tasks, and the sooner bank executives realize these, the sooner they can adopt better solutions.

General Limitations

Spreadsheets are far from being data base systems and yet more often than not, they are expected to act as such, with figures constantly added and formulas edited to produce the presumably right set of reports.

In addition, data integrity is always a cause for concern as most values in spreadsheets are entered as manual inputs. Even the mere misplacement of a comma or a negative sign, or an inadvertent “edit” to a formula can also be a source of significant changes in the outcome.

Confidentiality risk is also another drawback of the use of spreadsheets in banks as these tools do not have adequate access controls to limit access to only authorized individuals. Pertinent financial information that fall into the wrong hands can lead to a whole new set of problems including the possibility of fraud.

Risks in Trading

For trading transactions, spreadsheets can prove to be of immense use – but only for small market volumes. As trade volumes increase and the types vary, spreadsheets are no longer a viable solution and may likely become more of a hindrance, with calculations taking longer in the face of bigger transaction amounts and growing transaction data.

And in trading, there is always the need for rigorous computational functions. Computing for the Value at Risk (VaR) for large portfolios for instance, is simply way beyond the capabilities of spreadsheets. Banks that persist in using them are increasing the risk of loss on those portfolios. Or, they can be opening up opportunities for fraud as Allied Irish Bank (in the case of John Rusnak – $690 million) learned the hard way.

Risks in Underwriting

Bankers who use spreadsheets as their main source of information for underwriting procedures also face certain limitations. Loan transactions require that borrowers’ financial data be centralized and easily accessible to risk officers and lending officers involved in making decisions. With spreadsheets, there is no simple and secure way of doing that. Information can be pulled from different sources – individual tax returns, corporate tax documents, partnership documents, audited financial statements – hence there is difficulty in verifying that these reports adhere to underwriting policies.

Spreadsheet control and monitoring

Financial institutions which are having difficulty weaning themselves from the convenience and simplicity that spreadsheets offer are looking for possible control solutions. Essentially, they want to find ways that allow them to continue using these UDAs and yet somehow eliminate the spreadsheet risks and limitations involved.

Still, the debate goes back and forth on whether adequate control measures can be implemented on spreadsheets so that that the risks are mitigated. Many services have come forward to herald innovative solutions for better spreadsheet management. But at the end of the day, there really is no guarantee that such solutions would suffice.

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Top 10 Disadvantages of Spreadsheets

Fraudulent manipulations in company Excel files have already resulted in Billion-Dollar losses. The main underlying reason behind this spreadsheet vulnerability is the inherent lack of controls, which makes it so easy to alter either formulas, values, or dependencies without being detected.

Disadvantages of Spreadsheets

Comprehensive information and data your organisation needs, to circumvent the threats posed by spreadsheets.

1. Vulnerable to fraud

Of all the spreadsheet disadvantages listed here, this is perhaps the most damaging. Fraudulent manipulations in company Excel files have already resulted in Billion-Dollar losses. The main underlying reason behind this spreadsheet vulnerability is the inherent lack of controls, which makes it so easy to alter either formulas, values, or dependencies without being detected.

2. Susceptible to trivial human errors

 
While fraud will always be a threat to spreadsheet systems, there is a more significant threat that should make you seriously consider getting rid of these outdated systems. And that is its extreme susceptibility to even trivial human errors. Missed negative signs and misaligned rows may sound harmless.

But when they damage investor confidence or cause a considerable loss of opportunity amounting to millions of dollars (Are we serious? Google up “spreadsheet horror stories” to find out), you should understand that it’s time to move on to better alternatives.

3. Difficult to troubleshoot or test

So how about testing spreadsheets to mitigate the risks of items 1 and 2? Good luck. Spreadsheets just aren’t built for that. It’s not uncommon to have interrelated spreadsheet data scattered across different folders, workstations, offices, or even geographical locations.

Worse, even if you are able pinpoint the locations of every related file, tracing the logic of formulas from one related cell to another can take ages. It’s pretty obvious now how you’ll also encounter a similar problem when troubleshooting questionable data.

4. Obstructive to regulatory compliance

Combine items 1, 2, and 3, and what do you get? A big headache impacting regulatory compliance. There are number of regulations that have a serious impact on the use of spreadsheets.

Some of the many regulations that impact spreadsheet systems include:

 

And to think it looks like regulatory bodies are just getting warmed up. Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a surge in regulations that directly affect spreadsheet-based systems. Now, you tell me that you haven’t wished there was a better way to beat regulatory compliance deadlines. Well, if you’re still using spreadsheets, then there certainly is a better way.

 
5. Unfit for agile business practices
 

We’re now in an age when major changes are shaping and reshaping the business landscape. Mergers and Acquisitions, Management Buyouts, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, uprisings, climate change, new technologies, and so on. If your business isn’t agile enough to adapt to such changes, it could easily be left behind or even face extinction.

Spreadsheets are normally created by individuals who have not the slightest know-how regarding software documentation. In the end, spreadsheet files become highly personalized user developed applications. So when it’s time for a new person to take over as part of a large scale business change, the newcomer may have to start from scratch.

Read further about Implementing Large-Scale Business Change

 

6. Not designed for collaborative work

 

Planning, forecasting, budgeting, and reporting are all collaborative activities. In other words, plans, forecasts, budgets, and reports typically require information from different individuals belonging to different departments. In addition, the final documents are a result of multiple exchanges of data, ideas, and files.

Now, if your company’s offices are scattered throughout the country or if certain team members are separated by large distances, the only way to exchange data stored in spreadsheets is through email.

Experience will tell you that such a method of exchange is susceptible to duplicate and even erroneous data. Team members will tend to find it hard to keep track of similar files going back and forth, and sometimes even end up sending the wrong version.

7. Hard to consolidate

When it comes to simple data entry and quick ad hoc data analysis tasks, spreadsheets are highly favored by end users. This has made them one of the most ubiquitous office tools on the planet. But as a consequence, data in spreadsheet-based systems are distributed throughout the organization.

So when it’s time to generate reports, you’ll really have to go through a slow consolidation process. In most cases, end users would have to collect data from different files, summarize them, and submit the same to their department heads through emails, portable storage media (e.g. CDs or USB flashdrives), or by copying to a commonly shared network folder.

Department heads would have to undergo a similar process before submitting them to their own superiors. This has to go on until all the information reaches their organization’s top decision makers. Throughout the entire consolidation process, data is subjected to numerous error-prone activities such as copy-pasting, cell entry, and range specification.

8. Incapable of supporting quick decision making

In a spreadsheet-based environment, extracting data from different departments, consolidating them, and summarizing the information so that it could aid the company’s top brass in making sound decisions can be very time consuming.

And because we know how susceptible spreadsheets are to errors, everyone involved in the information processing has to be ultra careful to keep the integrity of the data intact. Hence it would be prudent to enforce double-checking as much as possible.

This extra but necessary exercise can further delay the process. So, when the final information arrives at the hands of the top executive, he may not have much time to work with. (Read about Business Intelligence)

9. Unsuited for business continuity

As mentioned earlier, data in spreadsheet systems are never kept in a single place. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The worse thing about it is that they’re always in the hands of non-IT personnel, who are understandably not familiar with storage and backup best practices.

Thus, if a major disaster strikes, full data recovery can be very difficult if not impossible. As a consequence, even if the company has financial reserves, the absence of data (e.g. accounts receivable records, customer records, and inventory) to work on can prevent the company from making a quick restart.

10. Scales poorly

As an organization grows, data in spreadsheet-based systems get more distributed; subsequently compounding the issues outlined above. It is absolutely not advisable for a large organization to keep using spreadsheets.

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