Understanding Risk and Reward

Electronic Discovery Risk Assessment3-1024x664Mark Twain once said “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics”.  We are inundated nowadays with statistics.  Statistics are a scientific method for collecting and analyzing data in order to make some conclusion from them.  Very valuable indeed, though not a crystal ball by any means. 

When you study investment management, you must conquer the statistical formulas and concepts that attempt to measure portfolio risk in relation to the many variables that can affect one’s investment returns.  In the context of investing, higher returns are the reward for taking on this investment risk – there is a trade-off – the investments that usually provide the highest returns can also expose your portfolio to the largest potential losses.  On the other hand, more conservative investments will likely protect your principal, but also not grow it as much. 

Managing this risk is a fundamental responsibility for an investment advisor, like DWM.  You cannot eliminate investment risk. But two basic investment strategies can help manage both systemic risk (risk affecting the economy as a whole) and non-systemic risk (risks that affect a small part of the economy, or even a single company).

  • Asset Allocation. By including different asset classes in your portfolio (for example equities, fixed income, alternatives and cash), you increase the probability that some of your investments will provide satisfactory returns even if others are flat or losing value. Put another way, you’re reducing the risk of major losses that can result from over-emphasizing a single asset class, however resilient you might expect that class to be.
  • Diversification. When you diversify, you divide the money you’ve allocated to a particular asset class, such as equities, among asset styles of investments that belong to that asset class. Diversification, with its emphasis on variety, allows you to spread you assets around. In short, you don’t put all your investment eggs in one basket.

However, evaluating the best investment strategy for you personally is more subjective and can’t as easily be answered with statistics!  Investment advisors universally will try to quantify your willingness to lose money in your quest to achieve your goals. No one wants to lose money, but some investors may be willing and able to allow more risk in their portfolio, while others want to make sure they protect it as well as they can.  In other words, risk is the cost we accept for the chance to increase our returns.

At DWM, when our clients first come in, we ask them to complete a “risk tolerance questionnaire”.  This helps us understand some of the client’s feelings about investing, what their experiences have been in the past and what their expectations are for the future.  We also spend a considerable amount of time getting to know our clients and understanding what their goals are and what their current and future financial picture might look like.  With this information in mind, we can then establish an asset allocation for each client’s portfolio.  We customize the allocation to reflect what we know about them, looking at both their emotional tolerance for risk, as well as their financial capacity to take on that risk.  We also evaluate this risk tolerance level frequently to account for any changes to our clients’ feelings, aspirations or necessities.  While we use the risk tolerance questionnaire to start the conversation, it is our understanding of our client that allows us to fine tune the recommended allocation strategy.

A Wall Street Journal article challenged how clients feel about their own risk tolerance and suggested that being afraid of market volatility tends to keep investors in a misleading vacuum.  The article suggests that investors must also consider the risk of not meeting their goals and, that by taking this into account, the investor’s risk tolerance might be quite different.

The WSJ writer surveyed investors from 23 countries asking this question:

“Suppose that you are given an opportunity to replace your current portfolio with a new portfolio.  The new portfolio has a 50-50 chance to increase your standard of living by 50% during your lifetime.  However, the new portfolio also has a 50-50 chance to reduce your standard of living by X% during your lifetime.  What is the maximum % reduction in standard of living you are willing to accept?” Americans, on average, says the article, are willing to accept a 12.65% reduction in their standard of living for a 50-50 chance at a 50% increase.   How might you answer that question?

So, bottom line, it is the responsibility of your advisor, like DWM, to encourage you to choose a portfolio allocation based on reasonable expectations and goals.  However, understanding your own risk tolerance and seeing the big picture of your investment strategy is also your responsibility.  Our recommendations are intended to be held for the long-term and adhered to consistently through market up and downs.  We know that disciplined and diversified investing is the strategy that works best for every allocation!

We want all of our clients to have portfolios that give them the best chance to achieve their financial aspirations without risking large losses that might harm those chances.  Through risk tolerance tools and in-depth conversations, we get to know our clients very well, so we can help them make the right choice.  After all, our clients are not just numbers to us!

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