Investment risk comes in different guises

There’s no getting away from the fact that investing — especially investing in equities — involves risk. But risk can mean different things to different people. There are also many different types of risk, so let’s have a look at some of the main ones.

Market risk and volatility

For many people, the most commonly perceived risk is market risk. If the share market falls sharply, you lose money, on paper at least. But this only matters if you plan to sell tomorrow. If your horizon is long, these daily ups and downs will matter less.

If you’re investing internationally, the ups and down of currency markets can affect the value of your portfolio in your home country. And if you’re invested in bonds, risks are posed by rising inflation, changing interest rates or a bond issuer defaulting on their payments.

Allied to market risk is volatility. The degree your investments rise and fall from year to year can affect your outcomes in a couple of ways. Firstly, there’s the stress that volatility can cause. Some people just aren’t as well equipped to deal with the ups and downs. Secondly, volatility can also have a real cost on your portfolio, as we shall see.

Diversification: the only free lunch in investing

You can deal with volatility through diversification. That means spreading your investments so you are not overly dependent on individual asset classes, countries, sectors or stocks. So, when one component zigs, another may zag. Think of it like shock absorbers in your car. Without them, you’re going to feel every  bump in the road. With them, the ride will be much smoother.

Diversification is often described as the only “free lunch” in investing. The flavour sensation of higher returns also can come with the indigestion of higher risk. But you can moderate the range of possible outcomes by ensuring you are not too exposed to any one ingredient. Think of it like a buffet full of different dining choices.

Of course, you could just stick to your home country. It’s what you know, after all. But this “home bias” also carries risks as well. Just as the performances of asset classes and individual sectors vary, so can those of countries. Think of Japan in the 1980s. Its market appeared unstoppable. Then it spent more than two decades in the doldrums.

Occasionally, the media gets excited about individual industries. Think about what happened in the early 2000s when the world was going crazy for technology stocks. It was a great bet while it lasted, but then it all came crashing down. Again, you can deal with this by spreading your allocation across different sectors, by diversifying internationally — and by keeping an exposure to all the drivers of expected return.

Falling in love with individual stocks is another risk you don’t need to take. If your gamble pays off, great! But it’s speculation. It’s not investment. You’re taking a bet that those companies will continue to dominate. Back in the 1960s, the media swooned over the ‘Nifty Fifty’, blue chips that would never let you down — names like Xerox, Eastman Kodak, IBM and Polaroid, all of whom were disrupted over the years. Nothing stays the same. That’s why you diversify.

Other types of risk

As for foreign exchange risk, you can “hedge” (a type of insurance) overseas returns to your home currency. But there is no evidence that this makes a difference to long-term returns. If you fully hedge your exposure and your home currency rises, all well and good. But if your home currency falls, you risk missing out on the kicker you get by converting the now more valuable foreign exchange. One answer is to hedge 50% of your overseas exposure and leave the other half unhedged.

While bonds are less volatile than shares, they still have their risks. The three main ones are rising inflation, increasing interest rates and default.

Inflation reduces the purchasing power of bonds. The income you were counting on suddenly buys less than it once did.

When a central bank increases interest rates, the prices of existing bonds can drop because their coupon rates look less favourable. Default occurs when a bond issuer can’t repay what they owe. Again, you can manage these risks by diversifying across different countries and currencies, and across government and corporate bonds.

Liquidity risk refers to difficulty in getting access to your money. So-called “alternative” investments often carry this risk. You can manage liquidity risk by always having sufficient cash on hand to keep you going in an emergency.

Finally, there is longevity risk, which means outliving your money. We’re all living longer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But how do you ensure your savings last you through retirement? And therein lies an irony. Unless you’re willing to take sufficient risk as an investor, you may end up with a retirement pot that simply isn’t big enough. That’s right — one of the biggest risks you face as investor is not taking enough risk.

Ashton Chritchlow