Friday, 15 November 2013

Risk Tolerance: Why and how to measure your own

It is standard best practice for a professional financial advisor to understand a client's risk tolerance. Since we, as DIY investors, have to be our own financial and investment advisor, that means we should be able to understand our own risk tolerance and apply the knowledge to achieve the same result. The desired end result is simply an investment portfolio that best suits our financial goals. A critical part of building an investment portfolio is to decide on an asset allocation, the mix of domestic and foreign stocks, bonds, GICs, cash (T-Bills or money market funds), real estate, commodities (gold or other) and risk tolerance plays an important role in that process. So how does risk tolerance fit in and contribute?

Risk tolerance vs Risk capacity vs Risk perception
A) Risk tolerance is an attitude, the preference a person has towards the balance between the chances of loss against potential gain. It is a psychological trait that is quite stable through a person's life, generally set by early adulthood, though it can change as a result of major life events, or evolve through the years, for example, as people get older their risk tolerance tends to decline. Everyone is different. Men tend to be more risk takers than women. Couples need to recognize that they are likely not to have the same attitude towards financial risk. Finding out differences and coming to an accommodation ahead of time within a couple will avoid strife down the road under the pressure of events. That's surely a big benefit on its own of obtaining a reliable measure of risk tolerance.

The people of some countries are more risk averse than others - apparently, Australians are more willing to take on financial risk than Americans who are more willing than the British, according to FinaMetrica in On the Stability of Risk Tolerance, which has collected hundreds of thousands of standardized surveys across these these countries. Another interesting point is that risk tolerance can differ markedly for a person towards physical, social, ethical, health and financial matters. The physical dare-devil might be a financial wimp, or vice versa.

The key result of matching risk tolerance with an eventual portfolio structure is that the investor should be comfortable with the portfolio. When the portfolio varies with market events there is less chance of a bad reaction when the portfolio behaves according to its matching risk level. The bad reaction can consist of emotional turmoil or it can consist of hasty ill-timed actions such as the notorious example of selling out after a temporary market plunge. However, as FinaMetrica note in their document on how to interpret the results of their risk tolerance survey, there is not an automatic consistency between the way someone reacts to an actual bad event, which they call "loss tolerance", and the risk he/she was willing to take.

B) Risk capacity measures the ability of a person to withstand negative outcomes before a person's standard of living is materially affected. It measures facts, most typically:

  • Time horizon (the longer before you need income or the capital back the higher the risk capacity), 
  • Wealth (the greater your assets, the more you can lose before it hurts)
  • Other Income (again the higher this is, the greater the risk capacity)
The UK regulatory body, the Financial Services Authority, says in its publication Guidance Consultation Assessing Suitability, that it is important to measure risk tolerance separately from risk capacity. Otherwise it is impossible to know which aspect is being measured. Part of the job is to compare and reconcile risk tolerance and risk capacity. Lots of tolerance with low capacity is a big danger while low tolerance and high capacity means missed opportunity e.g. the opportunity to earn higher returns and a better lifestyle in retirement or a greater legacy to leave behind.

C) Risk perception is the conception a person has of the actual risk with regard to different types of investments. Perception can change a lot through time and it may change quickly in contrast to true risk tolerance. The tendency of investors' mood to track rising and falling equity indices is sometimes termed changing risk tolerance but the re-interpretation, in the face of the stability of real risk tolerance, is that such tracking is due to changing perception of market place risk. In rising markets, people begin to feel there is less risk. For an instructive discussion of the difference, see this post on leading retirement researcher Wade Pfau's blog. The antidote to mistaken ideas of risk for all investors:
  • Investment Knowledge (being aware of past market history and how much and what kinds of risk there is in various asset classes, which this blog tries to address constantly and through specific posts such as this series of risk posts in July 2011)
Figuring Out Your Own Risk Tolerance
While we may have a general idea of our own financial risk tolerance, in order to compare it in any organized way with risk capacity and the portfolio options that are likely to produce required returns to meet financial goals, it is necessary to put numbers to risk tolerance. The way to do it is through a rated questionnaire. Taking into account the comments on best practices by the UK's Financial Services Authority, who examined and found wanting many questionnaires, there aren't many good choices. Two we found are:
  • FinaMetrica - self-administered online version (evidently the same questions as the pricier version for use in volume by advisors), along with the user guide that shows the mapping to portfolio asset allocation ranges and a Risk and Return Guide for various portfolios oriented to Canadian investors that itself has links to the historical results for the various portfolios. The company actually has posted the questions for various countries as a downloadable pdf on this page but of course you don't get the scoring and interpreted results. There is a $45 charge to fill out the questionnaire and get the results, all in about 20 minutes, but it can be worth it to get the greater output detail compared to the free Oxford questionnaire. It has 25 questions. Part of the output report looks like this -
  • Oxford Risk - developed by the University of Oxford, it is free here on the Standard Life website; it has 10 questions and takes only a couple of minutes to complete. The entire output looks like this - 
This blogger filled in both questionnaires (paying the $45 for the former) as honestly as possible for myself and found they gave the same results (a bit above the middle risk tolerance), which is encouragingly as it should be if they work properly. Other free online questionnaires we found did not give the same results. The questionnaires with erratic results  all seemed to violate the Financial Service Authority's best practices by confounding risk tolerance with capacity, or by being ambiguous asking several questions at once which left a feeling that no answer could be right for some questions. Such short and easy questionnaire tools would seem to be an obvious thing to do to make a significant step towards investing peace of mind, though not assured success, by proper alignment between one's inner attitudes and investing activity.

There are other questionnaires that measure risk capacity. Next week, we'll have a look at those to find the good ones.

Disclaimer: this post is my opinion only and should not be construed as investment advice. Readers should be aware that the above comparisons are not an investment recommendation. They rest on other sources, whose accuracy is not guaranteed and the article may not interpret such results correctly. Do your homework before making any decisions and consider consulting a professional advisor. 

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