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Posts Tagged ‘Risk Capacity’

It is said that when the British surrendered to the Colonial Army at Yorktown the band played a tune titled “The World Turned Upside Down.”  True or not, it is a fitting sound track to a seemingly improbable situation: The defeat of a well-trained army and navy of the most powerful empire in the world by an under-funded, out-numbered and ill-equipped army of colonials. It was as if the Sun, Earth and stars had become unhitched leaving navigators without their usual bearings.

In much the same way, the Great Recession has shattered our views on what is ‘safe’ and what it means to be ‘conservative’ or ‘aggressive.’  Looking to preserve capital and produce income?  Invest in government bonds and maybe real estate.  Young and looking to score big on the potential upside of stocks? Go for small company stocks or overseas because if there’s a bust you’ll have time to recover. At least that was the conventional thinking. Everything that was traditionally considered to be ‘safe’ and dull turned out to be dangerous and ‘risky.’

There’s nothing scarier than conventional thinking in a changing market.  And what has evolved after the near melt down of the US financial system – indeed the global financial system – in the Fall of 2008 is certainly a changed market.

Household names including the bluest of the Blue Chips have entered and come out of bankruptcy.  The foundation for wealth for most people – real estate – has crumbled and is a long way from recovery to previous levels. Government debt of developed countries considered at one time to be nearly risk-less have been to the precipice as Greece neared default and threatened the entire Euro zone. Now, it’s not even beyond the pale to consider a future downgrade of the credit rating of the US Government.

Having an understanding of risk is important not just for investors but for the advisers trying to guide them.  In the past, an adviser (or your company’s 401k web site) would have you fill out a questionnaire.  Those eight to 12 questions would identify the type of investor you were and lead to an asset allocation reasonably appropriate for an investor’s Risk Profile, Time Horizon and Goals. This was sometimes considered a “set and forget” type of thing.

But commonsense and our experience tell us that things change.  Take the weather:  Some days it’s sunny and other times it’s rainy or cold.  What you wear on one day or even part of a day may not be right when the weather changes.  That’s just like investing.  A risk profile and asset allocation determined at one point might not be right for another.

So risk profiles are not static things either.  Invariably, they change based on how we feel. Hey, we’re only human. You need to reconsider your risk appetite regularly and now is a good time.  And it should be more than a few multiple choice questions.

After the run-ups in the markets in the late 90’s, people would tend to see things going up perpetually and say they would be more comfortable with risk.  On the other hand, after the two major meltdowns this past decade, the pendulum has swung the other way. Too far, in fact.

Faced with our own emotions and the vagaries of a global economic system, one might consider it to be less risky to sit on the sidelines.  Or maybe it’s safe to put all your chips on what you know – like your company stock.  Or just cash it all out and leave it parked in a money market or bank.

At first glance these strategies may be considered low risk but in reality – even the reality of today’s changed world – they are not.  Your company stock?  Consider Enron or Lucent and ask their employees how their retirement accounts held up.  Cash?  At the minuscule rates banks are offering, you’re already behind the eight ball with taxes and inflation.

There’s more to risk than the volatile nature of an asset’s price. And what should matter most is not which assets are owned but how well they perform on the upside and downside.

If you’re hungry, your goal is to not be hungry.  You say you like to eat steak and always eat steak.  Well, that’s great but the risk of heart disease may catch up to you.  So what you ate before may not be right for you now. Maybe it’s time to substitute more fish and add more vegetables.

That’s the essence of remodeling your portfolio now.  Government bonds still have a place in your portfolio – just like that steak – but it’s time to scale back on the developed nations of Europe with their risks of default and the US where another bubble is brewing and add those from emerging markets. If you own gold or want to buy it because it’s a “safe haven” for inflationary times and you don’t want to miss the boat, consider other more usable commodities like potash.  (As the world adds nearly 75 million people a year, there’s a growing demand for cultivating food for them and potash is a staple needed for fertilizers).  After seeing a huge multi-national like BP get hammered for its lackadaisical approach to employee and environmental safety, it may be time to add more small companies to the mix which have less bureaucracy and may be faster to respond to opportunities and troubles.

The risky stuff may actually be more safe than the traditional stuff.

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On Wednesday, March 11, I launched the inaugural event of my Financial Road Map Series teleconferences.

I want to thank each of you who stopped by to listen in to my brief discussion on taking control of your financial future by controlling what you can.

To recap the important points we discussed:

1.) Control What You Can:  No sense in worrying about things that are beyond our individual control.  There’s plenty enough for us to handle and impact directly.  Things that you can control can include:  Your saving and spending habits, your health and exercise programs, your asset allocation, your investing costs, and most importantly, YOUR ATTITUDE.

2.) Have SMART Goals:  Begin with the end in mind.  Be Specific with Measurable goals that are Attainable and Realistic and tied to a specific Timeframe.  It’s one thing to say “someday I want to be rich” or “someday I want to own a boat.”  But if you can put a number to that vision, your mind’s eye can picture it as reality and it becomes a real target to shoot for.

3.) Understand Your Risk:  These past seventeen months have tested what it means to be an investor.  It has highlighted the reality that most individuals do not have a handle on their own risk appetite.  Understanding risk is more than simply answering a few questions on a form.  It involves an open and honest conversation with yourself, your spouse (significant other) and your advisor. Go beyond the standard form and consider what does money mean to you, how your family treated money, what has been your best and worst financial decision and how you came to those decisions.  Ask yourself (or your advisor should ask) how you feel about these risk attitudes.  You may even want to consider using an impartial tool located at www.riskprofiling.com to provide additional insight into your risk tolerance.

  • NOTE: In my practice I utilize multiple risk profile formats to get a handle on how a client thinks and what motivates a decision.  This is helpful to be able to better communicate with a client. 

But having an honest conversation is also integral to proper investment planning.  For instance, I can use the standard risk profile tools, my questions and the website tool listed above and determine a Risk Capacity Measure for a client.

A person who has verifiable emergency reserves (3 to 12 months depending on their particular circumstances), has a positive cash flow and net worth, low debt ratio and adequate life insurance in place has a capacity for higher risk than someone not demonstrating these attributes.  For someone lacking these attributes, the financial plan will likely focus on improving these measures before investing in something risky.

4.) Have an Investment Road Map: Most people would not go on a trip without a map or GPS.  The same should be true about investing.  Having a road map (called an Investment Policy Statement) is something that professional investors like pension funds, insurance companies and endowments use all the time.  It outlines the end result desired (for instance, growth of capital with the investment generating $X in income per year), the types of investments that will be considered (i.e. no investment in nuclear power or tobacco), and the criteria for determining when to buy, when to sell and what to replace it with.  This helps take the emotion out of investing and avoids having a long-term plan sabotaged by the chatter of “talking heads” either in the media or at the office water cooler.

5.) Risk Allocation:  You don’t need a graduate degree in finance to understand that some things just make sense.  More than ever the old adage makes sense: Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.  While it is true that all asset classes have lost value from their peak nearly 18-months ago, that is no reason to give up on the wisdom of diversification. Just because someone doesn’t win a race the first time doesn’t mean you give up running ever again, does it?

But let’s be sensible about this.  Having a target risk allocation (based on investor age, timeframe until goal, risk capacity and risk tolerance) does not mean simply that you “buy and hold” or “set and forget.”  While academic literatute indicates that a buy and hold strategy will win out over time, in reality most investors do not have the stomach for the occasional and frightening roller coaster rides that happen like they have recently.  In which case in makes sense to buy, regularly and tactically rebalance while exploiting short-term trends and hold cash.  (Most investors do a poor job at following trends, implementing a disciplined trading strategy without emotion and sometimes having to go against the grain and do what seems uncomfortable like buying when everyone else is selling).

6.) Control Your Costs and Your Investment Vehicle: Invesment costs can weigh you down like an anchor.  And choosing the right investment vehicle helps you ride in comfort to your destination. 

Consider this:  Not all mutual funds are created equal.  Actively managed mutual funds have costs that detract from performance.  And typically more than 50% of active mutual funds do not match much less beat their benchmark index.  Does this mean that you give up on investing?  Heck, no. It just means you find another ride.  When a star football player gets hurt, does the team forfeit the remaining games?  No, they have a back up ready for replacement.  With a solid investment policy and using ETFs, you can make a quick switch, too.

This is why you should consider a strong core of index mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) as part of your investment stratetgy (see “Top 8 Reasons to Use ETFs in Your Portfolio,” March 10 blog post).

7.) Estate Planning is for Everyone: Be prepared.  That’s the motto that every Boy Scout knows.  It’s good advice here as well.  Having the best investment strategy and record-breaking performance on investments will mean absolutely nothing if you’re not on a strong foundation.  This is what an estate plan will help do by laying the groundwork on how you want to control disposition of your assets and control your affairs.  Regardless of age or portfolio size, an estate plan is important throughout the various stages of life.  This goes for seniors and newly married couples.  If you have something or someone to protect, you need to talk with an attorney to draft a plan that includes at the very least: a Last Will, a durable Power of Attorney, a health care directive.  And if you have minor children it is imperative to have your guardianship issues addressed.

8.) Insurance: In uncertain times, it is even more important to make sure that you protect yourself from contingencies that can blow up your plans and get you off track.

Please review these items annually.  Consider putting it on your calendar to coincide with the seasonal change for clocks.

  • Make sure you have full replacement coverage on your property
  • Add an “umbrella liability” policy to your home and auto.  In a litigious world you don’t need to lose everything because of a lawsuit.
  • Make sure you have filed a “homestead declaration” recorded at the Registry of Deeds on your primary residence.  This will protect you from creditors placing a lien on your property that could force you to sell to settle a suit.
  • Review your employer-sponsored benefits and consider group Long-term Care Insurance, Short and Long-term Disability and Supplemental Accident coverages in addition to standard health/vision coverage.
  • You really need to consider coordinating these coverages with individually owned policies because when you leave your employer you will lose these coverages. 
  • Life Insurance:  Do speak with a financial planner who will do a detailed expense analysis to determine the appropriate level of insurance.  This approach is more likely to result in an appropriate level of insurance at a lower cost than rules of thumb based on income.  As with employer-benefits, consider having policies separate from your work.  A level-term policy is relatively inexpensive and offers cost-effective coverage during the peak years when you may have considerable debts and family responsibilities.

For specific advice on any of these matters, please consider speaking with an independent board-certified planner.

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