Managing Investment Risk
When you invest, you take certain risks. With insured bank investments, such as certificates of deposit (CDs), you face inflation risk, which means that you may not earn enough over time to keep pace with the increasing cost of living. With investments that aren't insured, such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, you face the risk that you might lose money, which can happen if the price falls and you sell for less than you paid to buy.
Just because you take investment risks doesn't mean you can't exert some control over what happens to the money you invest. In fact, the opposite is true.
If you know the types of risks you might face, make choices about those you are willing to take, and understand how to build and balance your portfolio to offset potential problems, you are managing investment risk to your advantage.
The question you might have at this point is, "Why would I want to risk losing some or all of my money?" In fact, you might not want to put money at risk that you expect to need in the short term—to make the down payment on a home, for example, or pay a tuition bill for next semester, or cover emergency expenses. By taking certain risks with the rest of your money, however, you may earn dividends or interest. In addition, the value of the assets you purchase may increase over the long term.
If you prefer to avoid risk and put your money in an FDIC-insured certificate of deposit (CD) at your bank, the most you can earn is the interest that the bank is paying. This may be good enough in some years, say, when interest rates are high or when other investments are falling. But on average, and over the long haul, stocks and bonds tend to grow more rapidly, which would make it easier or even possible to reach your savings goals. That's because avoiding investment risk entirely provides no protection against inflation, which decreases the value of your savings over time.
On the other hand, if you concentrate on only the riskiest investments, it's entirely possible, even likely, that you will lose money.
For many people, it's best to manage risk by building a diversified portfolio that holds several different types of investments. This approach provides the reasonable expectation that at least some of the investments will increase in value over a period of time. So even if the return on other investments is disappointing, your overall results may be positive.
There are many different types of investment risk. The two general types of risk are:
It probably comes as no surprise that there are several different ways you might lose money on an investment. To manage these risks, you need to know what they are.
Most investment risk is described as either systematic or nonsystematic. While those terms seem intimidating, what they refer to is actually straightforward.
Systematic risk is also known as market risk and relates to factors that affect the overall economy or securities markets. Systematic risk affects all companies, regardless of the company's financial condition, management, or capital structure, and, depending on the investment, can involve international as well as domestic factors. Here are some of the most common systematic risks:
Your chief defense against systematic risk, as you'll see, is to build a portfolio that includes investments that react differently to the same economic factors. It's a strategy known as asset allocation. This generally involves investing in both bonds and stocks or the funds that own them, always holding some of each. That's because historical patterns show that when bonds as a group—though not every bond—are providing a strong return, stocks on the whole tend to provide a disappointing return. The reverse is also true.
Bonds tend to provide strong returns, measured by the combination of change in value and investment earnings, when investor demand for them increases. That demand may be driven by concerns about volatility risk in the stock market—what's sometimes described as a flight to safety— or by the potential for higher yield that results when interest rates increase, or by both factors occurring at the same time.
That is, when investors believe they can benefit from good returns with less risk than they would be exposed to by owning stock, they are willing to pay more than par value to own bonds. In fact, they may sell stock to invest in bonds. The sale of stock combined with limited new buying drives stock prices down, reducing return.
In a different phase of the cycle, those same investors might sell off bonds to buy stock, with just the opposite effect on stock and bond prices. If you owned both bonds and stocks in both periods, you would benefit from the strong returns on the asset class that was in greater demand at any one time. You would also be ready when investor sentiment changes and the other asset class provides stronger returns. To manage systematic risk, you can allocate your total investment portfolio so that it includes some stock and some bonds as well as some cash investments.
Nonsystematic risk, in contrast to systematic risk, affects a much smaller number of companies or investments and is associated with investing in a particular product, company, or industry sector.
Here are some examples of nonsystematic risk:
One way to manage nonsystematic risk is to spread your investment dollars around, diversifying your portfolio holdings within each major asset class—stock, bonds, and cash—either by owning individual securities or mutual funds that invest in those securities. While you're likely to feel the impact of a company that crashes and burns, it should be much less traumatic if that company's stock is just one among several you own.
The investment decisions you make—and sometimes those you avoid making—can expose you to certain risks that can impede your progress toward meeting your investment goals.
For example, buying and selling investments in your accounts too frequently, perhaps in an attempt to take advantage of short-term gains or avoid short-term losses, can increase your trading costs. The money you spend on trading reduces the balance in your account or eats into the amount you have to invest. If you decide to invest in something that's receiving a lot of media attention, you may be increasing the possibility that you're buying at the market peak, setting yourself up for future losses. Or, if you sell in a sudden market downturn, it can mean not only locking in your losses but also missing out on future gains.
You can also increase your investment risk if you don't monitor the performance of your portfolio and make appropriate changes. For example, you should be aware of investments that have failed to live up to your expectations, and shed them when you determine that they are unlikely to improve, using the money from that sale for another investment.
It's one thing to know that there are risks in investing. But how do you figure out ahead of time what those risks might be, which ones you are willing to take, and which ones may never be worth taking? There are three basic steps to assessing risk:
You can follow this path on your own or with the help of one or more investment professionals, including stockbrokers, registered investment advisers, and financial planners with expertise in these areas.
The first step in assessing investment risk is to understand the types of risk a particular category or group of investments—called an asset class—might expose you to. For example, stock, bonds, and cash are considered separate asset classes because each of them puts your money to work in different ways. As a result, each asset class poses particular risks that may not be characteristic of the other classes. If you understand what those risks are, you can generally take steps to offset those risks.
Other asset classes, including real estate, pose their own risks, while investment products, such as annuities or mutual funds that invest in a specific asset class, tend to share the risks of that class. That means that the risk you face with a stock mutual fund is very much like the risk you face with individual stock, although most mutual funds are diversified, which helps to offset nonsystematic risk.
The second step is to determine the kinds of risk you are comfortable taking at a particular point in time. Since it's rarely possible to avoid investment risk entirely, the goal of this step is to determine the level of risk that is appropriate for you and your situation. Your decision will be driven in large part by:
Age is one of the most important issues in managing investment risk. In general, the younger you are, the more investment risk you can afford to take. The reason is simple: You have more time to make up for any losses you might suffer in the short term.
You can use recent history to illustrate the validity of this point. Suppose two people, one 30 and the other 60, had been similarly invested in October 2007 in portfolios overloaded with stocks. By March 2009, both would almost certainly have lost substantial amounts of money. But while the younger person has perhaps 35 years to recover and accumulate investment assets, the older person may be forced to delay retirement.
On the other hand, having a long time to recover from losses doesn't mean you can ignore the importance of managing risk and choosing investments carefully and selling them when appropriate. The younger you are, the more stock and stock funds—both mutual funds and exchange traded funds—you might consider buying. But stock in a poorly run company, a company with massive debt and noncompetitive products, or a company whose stock is wildly overpriced, probably isn't a good investment from a risk-management perspective, no matter how old you are.
As you get closer to retirement, managing investment risk generally means moving at least some of your assets out of more volatile stock and stock funds into income-producing equities and bonds. Determine what percentage of your assets you want to transfer, and when. That way you won't have more exposure to a potential downturn than you've prepared for. The consensus, though, is to include at least some investments with growth potential (and therefore greater risk to principal) after you retire since you'll need more money if you live longer than expected. Without growth potential, you're vulnerable to inflation.
Keep in mind that your attitude toward investment risk may—and probably should—change over time. If you are the primary source of support for a number of people, you may be willing to take less investment risk than you did when you were responsible for just yourself.
In contrast, the larger your investment base, the more willing you may be to take added risk with a portion of your total portfolio. In a worst-case scenario, you could manage without the money you lost. And if your calculated risk pays off, you may have even more financial security than you had before.
Many people also find that the more clearly they understand how investments work, the more comfortable they feel about taking risk.
The third step is evaluating specific investments that you are considering within an asset class. There are tools you can use to evaluate the risk of a particular investment—a process that makes a lot of sense to follow both before you make a new purchase and as part of a regular reassessment of your portfolio. It's important to remember that part of managing investment risk is not only deciding what to buy and when to buy it, but also what to sell and when to sell it.
For stocks and bonds, the place to start is with information about the issuer, since the value of the investment is directly linked to the strength of the company—or in the case of certain bonds, the government or government agency—behind them.
While the past performance of an investment never guarantees what will happen in the future, it is still an important tool. For example, a historical perspective can alert you to the kinds of losses you should be prepared for—an awareness that's essential to managing your risk. A sense of the past can also tell you which asset class or classes have provided the strongest return over time and what their average returns are.
Another way to assess investment risk is to stay tuned to what's happening in the world around you. For example, investment professionals who learn that a company is being investigated by its regulator may decide it's time to unload any of its securities that their clients own or that they hold in their own accounts. Similarly, political turmoil in a particular area of the world might increase the risk of investing in that region. While you don't want to overreact, you don't want to take more risk than you are comfortable with.
While some investors assume a high level of risk by going for the gold—or looking for winners—most people are interested in minimizing risk while realizing a satisfactory return. If that's your approach, you might consider two basic investment strategies: asset allocation and diversification.
When you allocate your assets, you decide—usually on a percentage basis—what portion of your total portfolio to invest in different asset classes, usually stock, bonds, and cash or cash equivalents. You can make these investments either directly by purchasing individual securities or indirectly by choosing funds that invest in those securities.
As you build a more extensive portfolio, you may also include other asset classes, such as real estate, which can also help to spread out your investment risk and so moderate it.
Asset allocation is a useful tool in managing systematic risk because different categories of investments respond to changing economic and political conditions in different ways. By including different asset classes in your portfolio, 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.
For example, in periods of strong corporate earnings and relative stability, many investors choose to own stock or stock mutual funds. The effect of this demand is to drive stock prices up, increasing their total return, which is the sum of the dividends they pay plus any change in value. If investors find the money to invest in stock by selling some of their bond holdings or by simply not putting any new money into bonds, then bond prices will tend to fall because there is a greater supply of bonds than of investors competing for them. Falling prices reduce the bonds' total return. In contrast, in periods of rising interest rates and economic uncertainty, many investors prefer to own bonds or keep a substantial percentage of their portfolio in cash. That can depress the total return that stock provides while increasing the return from bonds.
While you can recognize historical patterns that seem to indicate a strong period for a particular asset class or classes, the length and intensity of these cyclical patterns are not predictable. That's why it's important to have money in multiple asset classes at all times. You can always adjust your portfolio allocation if economic signs seem to favor one asset class over another.
Financial services companies make adjustments to the asset mix they recommend for portfolios on a regular basis, based on their assessment of the current market environment. For example, a firm might suggest that you increase your cash allocation by a certain percentage and reduce your equity holdings by a similar percentage in a period of rising interest rates and increasing international tension. Companies frequently display their recommended portfolio mix as a pie chart, showing the percentage allocated to each asset class.
Modifying your asset allocation modestly from time to time is not the same thing as market timing, which typically involves making frequent shifts in your portfolio holdings in anticipation of which way the markets will turn. Because no one knows what will happen, this technique rarely produces positive long-term results.
When you diversify, you divide the money you've allocated to a particular asset class, such as stocks, among various categories of investments that belong to that asset class. These smaller groups are called subclasses. For example, within the stock category you might choose subclasses based on different market capitalizations: some large companies or funds that invest in large companies, some mid-sized companies or funds that invest in them, and some small companies or funds that invest in them. You might also include securities issued by companies that represent different sectors of the economy, such as technology companies, manufacturing companies, pharmaceutical companies, and utility companies.
Similarly, if you're buying bonds, you might choose bonds from different issuers—the federal government, state and local governments, and corporations—as well as those with different terms and different credit ratings.
Diversification, with its emphasis on variety, allows you to manage nonsystematic risk by tapping into the potential strength of different subclasses, which, like the larger asset classes, tend to do better in some periods than in others. For example, there are times when the performance of small company stock outpaces the performance of larger, more stable companies. And there are times when small company stock falters.
Similarly, there are periods when intermediate-term bonds—U.S. Treasury notes are a good example—provide a stronger return than short- or long-term bonds from the same issuer. Rather than trying to determine which bonds to buy at which time, there are different strategies you can use.
For example, you can buy bonds with different terms, or maturity dates. This approach, called a barbell strategy, involves investing roughly equivalent amounts in short-term and long-term bonds, weighting your portfolio at either end. That way, you can limit risk by having at least a portion of your total bond portfolio in whichever of those two subclasses is providing the stronger return.
Alternatively, you can buy bonds with the same term but different maturity dates. Using this strategy, called laddering, you invest roughly equivalent amounts in a series of fixed-income securities that mature in a rolling pattern, perhaps every two years. Instead of investing $15,000 in one note that will mature in 10 years, you invest $3,000 in a note maturing in two years, another $3,000 in a note maturing in four years, and so on. This approach helps you manage risk in two ways:
In contrast to a limited number of asset classes, the universe of individual investments is huge. Which raises the question: How many different investments should you own to diversify your portfolio broadly enough to manage investment risk? Unfortunately, there is no simple or single answer that is right for everyone. Whether your stock portfolio includes six securities, 20 securities, or more is a decision you have to make in consultation with your investment professional or based on your own research and judgment.
In general, however, the decision will depend on how closely the investments track one another's returns—a concept called correlation. For example, if Stock A always goes up and down the same amount as Stock B, they are said to be perfectly correlated. If Stock A always goes up the same amount that Stock B goes down, they are said to be negatively correlated. In the real world, securities often are positively correlated with one another to varying degrees. The less positively correlated your investments are with one another, the better diversified you are.
Building a diversified portfolio is one of the reasons many investors turn to pooled investments—including mutual funds, exchange traded funds, and the investment portfolios of variable annuities. Pooled investments typically include a larger number and variety of underlying investments than you are likely to assemble on your own, so they help spread out your risk. You do have to make sure, however, that even the pooled investments you own are diversified—for example, owning two mutual funds that invest in the same subclass of stocks won't help you to diversify.
With any investment strategy, it's important that you not only choose an asset allocation and diversify your holdings when you establish your portfolio, but also stay actively attuned to the results of your choices. A critical step in managing investment risk is keeping track of whether or not your investments, both individually and as a group, are meeting reasonable expectations. Be prepared to make adjustments when the situation calls for it.
You can't measure risk by putting it on a scale or lining it up against a yardstick. One way to put the risk of a particular investment into context—called the risk premium in the case of stock or the default premium in the case of bonds—is to evaluate its return in relation to the return on a risk-free investment.
Is there actually a risk-free investment? The one that comes closest is the 13-week U.S. Treasury bill, also referred to as the 91-day bill. This investment serves as a benchmark for evaluating the risk of investing in stock for two reasons:
The long-term Treasury bond is the risk-free standard for measuring the default risk posed by a corporate bond. While both are vulnerable to inflation and market risk, the Treasury bond is considered free of default risk.
In big-picture terms, managing risk is about the allocation and diversification of holdings in your portfolio. So when you choose new investments, you do it with an eye to what you already own and how the new investment helps you achieve greater balance. For example, you might include some investments that may be volatile because they have the potential to increase dramatically in value, which other investments in your portfolio are unlikely to do.
Whether you're aware of it or not, by approaching risk in this way—rather than always buying the safest investments—you're being influenced by what's called modern portfolio theory, or sometimes simply portfolio theory. While it's standard practice today, the concept of minimizing risk by combining volatile and price-stable investments in a single portfolio was a significant departure from traditional investing practices.
In fact, modern portfolio theory, for which economists Harry Markowitz, William Sharpe, and Merton Miller shared the Nobel Prize in 1990, employs a scientific approach to measuring risk, and by extension, to choosing investments. It involves calculating projected returns of various portfolio combinations to identify those that are likely to provide the best returns at different levels of risk.