There is no question that risk carries a negative connotation for investors. But the simple fact about risk is that it’s ever-present. There is more to risk than market volatility, and trying to avoid risk is like trying to avoid the oxygen in the room. You might think you’re avoiding it by sticking with safer investments, such as bonds. But when you make moves like this, you’re usually just swapping one kind of risk for another. In this case, you may have reduced short-term volatility risk, but you likely increased long-term shortfall risk: With a heavy emphasis on lower-yielding “safe” investments, your portfolio may not grow enough to meet your retirement needs or overcome inflation over the long term.
On the flip side, we may also mistake an upward trend in the market for the absence of risk. A strong performance streak doesn’t mean there was no risk. It just means that risk didn’t bite hard during that time period. Don’t confuse being lucky with being risk-proof.
So, we can’t avoid risk. But neither should we be oblivious to it. What we need to do is understand the risks we’re taking, and remember risk’s traveling companion: reward. This keys in on an important point: Risk isn’t inherently bad. When you take risk, you can have good outcomes, too. Risks should have related and commensurate potential rewards. We invest in the market not because risk is bad and we expect to lose money, but because taking risk can be profitable. So, the question is not whether to take risk. Instead, it’s what risks do you want to take, and how much?
Types of Risk
As suggested above, there is more than one kind of risk, and to manage risk well, you need to consider the different types. For instance, investing risk is not all (or even mostly) about the market’s volatility (the Dow’s daily ups and downs on Fed talk, China’s latest data, or any number of global worries).
When thinking about investment risk, you need to consider company fundamentals (what will cause this firm to succeed or fail), because that will ultimately drive the stock price over time. There is also price risk. Even if the company is poised for tremendous success, how much are you paying to own a piece of it? If you overpay, you can still lose money, because stocks tend to revert to their fair value over time, even if they occasionally become under- or overvalued.
You also have to consider your own shortfall risk. Conceivably, you’re investing in the market to fund some future expense (for instance, college or retirement). If you take money out of the market, or move money from stocks to bonds, what does that mean for your long-term earning potential, given the types of returns bonds tend to produce over long periods of time? Remember, funding that future expense is your primary objective, not avoiding every little dip in the market along the way.
But instead of fundamental, price, and shortfall risk, we investors tend to focus on short-term volatility because that’s the thing we see every day, in real time. It’s the most apparent and seemingly uncontrollable risk. Make no mistake, volatility may reflect real changes in a company’s fundamentals, and that can mean a real loss of money for you. But volatility is often just noise, reflecting worries that won’t have any lasting or appreciable effect on a company’s operations. In these cases, we shouldn’t let volatility risk leave the realm of paper losses.
That’s easier said than done, of course, especially during a market crisis or correction. But one way of getting around that is by considering another type of risk: liquidity risk. That’s the risk that you can’t sell an asset (or at least can’t sell it for a reasonable price) when you need to sell it. The upshot: If you have a short-term need for cash, then have cash on hand. That allows you to ride through the volatility risk of your other assets.
©2015 Morningstar, Inc.