Investors’ Next Disappointment Will Come From Risk Mismanagement

080519_USEconomy1My Comments: Reader of this blog know that I try to include meaningful comments about investments and investment outcomes. Over the years, I’ve done well for some clients and done poorly for others. And while the past is history, there are always lessons to be learned. I have a personal mandate to try and do better in the coming months and years.

Here are some really good insights that I think will help you. Mistakes are part of the game, whether you prefer to make your own mistakes or hire someone to make them for you. I’ve you’ve hired me, you know that we’re on a really solid track these days and the future looks really good.

John S. Tobey / 3/29/2014

Risk mismanagement is everywhere. Many investors (individual and professional), investment advisors and even Wall Street are guilty of overstating, underweighting or misunderstanding risk. As a result, portfolios are being designed to disappoint. Worse, we have finally reached the best of times for investing, only to have investors’ prospects mucked up by bad investment decisions.

Disclosure: Fully invested in stocks, stock funds and bond funds. No position in Oppenheimer Holdings, mentioned below.

So, what’s wrong? There are three basic mistakes being made:
1. Overstating risk and investing for the next catastrophe. Here, protection from risk is taking priority. The focus is on what could go wrong. The result? Invest for protection, avoiding or hedging (watering down) equity risk/return and holding “safe” investments.
2. Understating risk and investing for top return. This attitude is a return of the performance chaser, looking for more return and less risk. The mistake is buying into a trend that happens to be exhibiting those characteristics, thereby underestimating risk.
3. Misunderstanding risk and investing inappropriately. There are many types of risk at work. Understanding them and how they relate to the investor’s situation is imperative for investing appropriately. Too often, a risk measure is chosen that over- or under-emphasizes an investment’s risk (e.g., a high or low price/earnings ratio for a stock).

How to avoid the mistakes

First, realize risk is everywhere. OppenheimerFunds has a current ad, headlined “Taking risks is not the same as using risk.” It makes the key point about investing: All investments carry risk, so make sure to carry (use) risk for your benefit, not simply accept it as a cost of owning a desired investment. (Even cash carries risk – the loss of purchasing power through inflation – so an investor must choose which risks are acceptable and in what combination.)

Second, realize you can’t have it all. As a new stockbroker in the 1960s, I was given a sales kit that included the golden triangle. It depicts investing’s tradeoffs that exist in all markets – i.e., within the triangle below, we must pick our desired point. There is no ducking the fact that investing is the ultimate compromise – that we cannot have our cake and eat it, too. (Interestingly, Oppenheimer has brought this message back in its aptly-named website, GrowthIncomeProtection.com.)

Third, start with the basic allocation and work from there. The long-held, rule-of-thumb allocation is 60% stocks (equities) and 40% bonds (fixed-income). This mix provides the most oomph (return) per unit of risk. That doesn’t mean it should be every investor’s choice, but it is the perfect place to start. Varying from it has consequences that need to be understood and accepted.

Fourth, control that risk over time.
Controlling a portfolio’s risk means taking two actions:
1. Rebalance as needed. Different investments will follow different paths. The resulting performance differences reset the portfolio’s risk, so it’s important to periodically rebalance back to the desired allocation and risk level.
2. Monitor the chosen investments. Changes happen to funds and companies, so it’s important to ensure the reasons for choosing them remain in place. If not, they should be replaced.

Fifth, check performance infrequently and do not use it to change allocation. It’s a proven fact that more frequent checking makes risk look greater and trends look longer. Both erroneous perceptions can lead to equally erroneous portfolio allocation changes that adversely affect risk and return. If the portfolio has been designed appropriately, expect to keep the allocation unaltered. Only a change in personal circumstances might require an allocation change.

Sixth, avoid all combination investments unless you fully understand and need them. Wall Street is filled with combination investment “products.” While some have a financial purpose (e.g., convertible bonds and mortgage pass-through bonds), some are designed more for investors’ desires (e.g., leveraged funds and stock + written call funds). Options, by themselves, are also a combined investment. All of these investments have odd risk-return characteristics that need to be understood. Otherwise, investors can see win-win where none exists.

The bottom line
Happily, we are now in a normal market environment. That does not mean everything is headed up and there is no uncertainty – that would be an abnormal market. Rather, it means we can rely on time-tested investment wisdom to design our investment approach. Starting with the basic 60%/40% mix, we can fashion a portfolio that best fits our needs, ignoring today’s headlines and any left over Great Recession worries.

Another risk, not discussed above
The academics refer to it as “specific” risk. It’s the uncertainty attached to an individual investment (e.g., a favorite stock), a non-diversified portfolio (e.g., a biotechnology fund) and an investment strategy (e.g., a small-cap growth fund). Selecting successfully can increase return, but picking poorly can reduce return. Because so many experienced investors are actively involved, Warren Buffett offered his advice to buy a broad index fund and leave the stock picking to others.

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