About Us

PnL Explained Professionals FAQ

Site Map



Contact Us


Main Page by Topic

A. PnL Explained

B. CTRM Software

C. Statistics



Introduction to VaR ‘Value-at-Risk’



This page provides readers with a high level introduction to Value-at-Risk, known as ‘VaR’. 


It also contains the best description and comparison of the three methodologies as used by the industry that you’ll ever read.  They go by the names of ‘parametric’, ‘historic’ and ‘Monte Carlo’.  


For additional details on Historic VaR, click here:

Historic VaR



1) What Is VaR?

2) Limitations of VaR

3) Comparison to a Stress Test Report

4) Comparison of VaR Methodologies

5) Considerations for CTRM System Design


1) What Is VaR?

VaR, i.e., Value at Risk, is a measure of how much money you might lose ‘worst case’ based on your current positions (i.e., market risk for existing trades).


The time frame is defined as one day, i.e., VaR shows how much you might lose between today and tomorrow.


The typical definition of ‘worst case’ is 95%.  So far shows the threshold of what you might lose, financially, due to adverse market moves, 5% of the time. 


Example:  If your VaR is $1000, you would be expected to lose more than $1000 5% of the time.  VaR does not say how much you might lose, e.g., with a VaR of $1000, you might one day lose $2000 or even $5000 and that would be entirely consistent with the way VaR is defined and used.


Note that 5% is one in twenty.  There are typically around 22 business days in a month.  So your VaR number could also be thought of as the amount of month you lose on your worst day in any given month.  And that can be important for firms in terms of how much risk capital they need to have on hand.


2) Limitations of VaR


2.1) Just a single number

An important thing to consider about VaR is that it is just a single number, i.e., a single numeric value, no matter how many trades/positions you have.  While this is one of VaR’s strengths, its simplicity, it is also one of its limitations.


Clearly you can’t expect to get too much information by summarizing ‘everything’ into just one number.   So as a practical matter, risk managers should supplement VaR with stress test reports that show PnL (profit/loss) from defined market moves like up 5%, down 5%, etc.


Clarifying a bit:  You can see VaR by some criteria, e.g. ,VaR by Trader is common.  Point here is that is still just one number and so won’t be as good on its own as looking at both VaR and a Stress Test report.


2.2) The assumptions are not valid.

There.  I said it.  The assumptions of a typical VaR formula are demonstrably wrong. 


Example:  Some VaR models assume prices changes are lognormally distributed.  Note that we are talking about ‘prices changes’ and not ‘prices’.  E.g., if the price of a commodity goes from $30 to $31, it is the $1 that we are talking about as the price change. 


Though technically, models will use the percentage of the price change, which is 3.333% for the above example.


Getting even more technical, models will assume the log (‘ln’ in Excel, the natural log) of the price change.  Ln(31/30) in this case = 3.279%


In any case…. Prices can jump, e.g., double or get cut in half in one day in a much greater frequency in the real world than what a lognormal distribution would predict.


3) Comparison to a Stress Test Report


I like to say that, “VaR is like a Stress Test Report if you add probability”.


Suppose you have a Stress Test Report that shows PnL or Risk for shocks to the market from -10% to up 10% in increments of 1%, like this:

-10%, -9%, -8%, …, -3%, -2%, -1%, 0%, +1%, +2%, …, +10%


And suppose you just has one position, e.g., long 100 Crude Oil contracts.  One position means you don’t need to worry about correlations.


You might determine that there is only a 5% chance that prices will drop by more than 3%.  In other words, a 95% chance that prices will change by -3% or less, i.e., meaning could go anywhere from down 3% to up any amount.


In that case, you can look at your PnL at the -3% mark in your stress test report and that would be your VaR, though take the absolute value.  E.g., if at -3% on your Stress Test, you lost $100k, then we would stay your VaR is $100k. 



4) Comparison of VaR Methodologies


VaR methodologies, as shown in the below diagram, are:

4.1) Parametric VaR

This is a ‘closed form’ formula that takes certain inputs, including trade ‘deltas’ (market risk positions) and volatilities and correlations and produces a VaR number.


The volatilities and correlations are calculated based on actual (historic) prices and their corresponding price changes (day over day).  This is usually done as a separate step, i.e., prior to running VaR.


4.2) Historic VaR

Historic VaR uses just the set of prices and price changes you start with, i.e., unlike Monte Carlo VaR, which generates the new set of price changes.


I.e., is doesn’t require the extra steps of creating volatilities and correlations and it runs far fewer MTM trials. 


Historic VaR is arguably the simplest way to calculate VaR.


4.3) Monte Carlo VaR

This starts with the same historic prices, i.e., like parametric VaR, and calculates the same volatilities and correlations, but then, instead of plugging them into a formula to get your VaR value, it will take those volatilities and correlations and generate 10,000 ‘fake’ price changes.


It will take those fake price changes, which, by the way, have the attributing of having the same volatility and correlations as your original set of prices (if you were to work that out) and use them to calculate the value of your trades (the ‘MTM’ – mark to market) by taking the current day’s prices and ‘shocking’ them up/down by the price changes.


This has the effect of smoothing things a bit relative to just using the limited set of prices and price changes that you started with. 


Then, as a final step, you need to order/sort/rank the 10,000 trials by MTM value, from best to worst.  Then take the 500th worst value, which is 5% * 10,000.  That is your VaR number.  Though the ‘worst’ value would be negative, e.g., -$30,000, meaning you would lose $30,000 if prices move like that 500th worst trial values, you would indicate VaR using the absolute value, i.e., +$30,000, and it would be understood that it is an amount you could lose (not gain).




5) Considerations for CTRM System Design


5.1) CTRM systems should support all of the above VaR methodologies.  And, specifically, they should support them *at the same time*.  i.e., there should not be a single global setting that indicates the VaR methodology.


i.e., firms will want to run more than one VaR methodology and have it be super easy.


For example, running Monte Carlo VaR is notoriously slow, because of the large, e.g., 10,000 ‘trials’ (calculating MTM for each set of price changes), and it won’t necessarily give you a materially different number than using historic VaR.   So maybe a firm might want to run historic VaR every day and then maybe Monte Carlo VaR periodically, e.g., once a month, so as to confirm that the ending VaR values are pretty much the same.


5.2) In the diagram, you see 256 Days of prices.  This is meant to be for a year, since there are approximately 256 good business days in a year (subtract weekends and holidays).   However, each firm may want a different value of days to use.


I personally prefer 41 days of prices, so 40 days of price changes.  This is a nice value, because using a 95% threshold confidence level, you get an integer number, e.g., 5% * 40 = 2.  So you can take the second to worst trial day to be your VaR number.  If you were to use 50 days and want 5%, you would have to interpolate between the 2nd and 3rd worst days to get VaR values.


CTRM systems should allow for users to specify the number of days to go back.  i.e., specifically mean the number of trial days / business days.  i.e., not just say ‘2 months’, which might be 44 days at one point and 43 days for another day of the year, depending on how many days are in the months and holidays.  CTRM systems should support both an explicit number of days to use as well as based on a calendar range, e.g., ‘6 months’.


And CTRM system should support running VaR with two different sets of days *at the same time*.  e.g., might want to run VaR with both 40 days of price changes (most recent 40 days) as well as with 120 days of price changes. 


Why?  May want to compare the two.  Most of the time, you’ll get approximately the same VaR number (using 5% threshold).  It would tell you something if you get a much different number, e.g., if the prior 40 days were particularly more volatility that then months that preceded them.


5.3) The 95% confidence threshold is also something that should not only be user configurable, you should be able to run two VaR calcs using two different thresholds, e.g., 95% and 99% *at the same time*.  i.e.., therefore, this can’t be a global system setting.


5.4) Same for Monte Carlo VaR trials.  E.g., should be able to run 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, and 10,000 trial Monte Carlo VaR *at the same time* if desired.


5.5) Show your work!

In math class, a teacher may give you only partial credit if you just put the correct answer.  You need to show your work, the intermediate steps, to get full credit.  Same with VaR in CTRM systems.


It can be super confusing to try to figure out why a VaR number changed from one day to another.  Was it due to different trades/positions?  Was it due to price changes, i.e., this day’s set of historic price days versus shifted one back from the prior day?


The solution is not complete until you can provide tools/reports showing the risk managers every detail about every intermediate step in the process. 


5.6) You should also give them ‘hooks’ at each step in the process, so they can change/modify things.  For example, for Monte Carlo VaR, after the system generates the 10,000 ‘trial’ price changes… users should be able to access that set of data and modify those prices.  Maybe to introduce some extra ‘shocks’ or put in some additional logic or checking.


5.7) Should also be able to read in those shock values from a file or another system, e.g., to calculate them offline.


5.8) Though we mentioned above VaR is just one number for all trades, you should also give firms the ability to calculate/produce additional VaR values by *any* criteria, e.g., one VaR value per commodity.  Or even down to one VaR value per trade.  This can be useful in troubleshooting issues and/or understanding, from a risk management point of view, how to interpret the overall VaR number.


5.9) Backtesting

System should give users the ability to easily ‘backtest’ the VaR number.  E.g., if you run a 95% VaR, you expect to lose more than the VaR number 5% of the time, or about 1 day a month.  If you are losing more than the VaR number, say, 5 days a month, then that might indicate an issue.  Need to be easily able to backtest to detect that.


Note that the VaR numbers only work on the trades ‘as is’, i.e., so don’t include PnL effects of new trades done the next day, amendments or cancelations.  Some use the terms ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ PnL to clarify the difference.  i.e., for VaR backtesting, you would need to use ‘clean’ PnL, i.e., assume that the only thing that happens the next day is that prices change (assume no trading/scheduling, etc.).



Introduction to CTRM

Click on this link for a great introduction to CTRM software: Introduction to CTRM Software




Site Map

Contact Us