Markowitz’s Five Dimensions of Risk

March 25, 2010 at 11:10 pm 1 comment

Eighty-two year old Harry Markowitz, 1990 Nobel Prize winner, is best known for his creation of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) in the 1950s. MPT elegantly combines mathematical variables such that investors can theoretically maximize returns while minimizing risk with the aid of diversification. Markowitz’s Efficient Frontier research eventually led to the future breakthrough of the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM).

The Different Faces of Risk

Before we dive further into Markowitz’s dimensions of risk, let’s explore the definitions of the word “risk.” Just like the word “love” is interpreted differently by different people, so too does risk. To some, risk is defined as the probability of loss. To mathematicians, risk often means the historical volatility in returns as measured by standard deviation or Beta. For many individual investors, risk is frequently mischaracterized by emotions – risk is believed to be high after market collapse and low after extended market rallies (see also Wobbling Risk Tolerances article).

The Five Dimensions of Risk

With the procedural definitions of risk behind us, we can take a deeper look at risk from the eyes of Markowitz. Beyond the complex mathematical equations, Markowitz also understands risk from the practical investor’s standpoint.  In a recent Financial Advisor magazine article Markowitz reviews the five dimensions of risk exposure:

1)      Time Horizon

2)      Liquidity Needs

3)      Net Income

4)      Net Worth

5)      Investing Knowledge/Attitudes on Risk

 Rather than pay attention to these practical dimensions of individual risk tolerance, countless investors adjust their risk exposure (equity allocation) by speculating on the direction of the stock market, which usually means buying high and selling low at inopportune times.  Although it can be entertaining to guess the direction of the market, we all know market timing is a loser’s game in the long-run (see also Market Timing Treadmill article). Markowitz’s first four risk exposures are fairly straightforward, measurable factors, however the fifth exposure (“knowledge and attitude”) is much more difficult to measure. Determining risk attitude can be an arduous process if risk tolerance constantly wavers through the winds of market volatility.

The Double Whammy

Rather than becoming a nervous Nelly, constantly chomping on your finger nails, your investment focus should be on action, and the things you can control. The number one goal is simple….SAVE. How does one save? All one needs to do is spend less than they take in. Like dieting, saving is easy to understand, but difficult to execute. You can either make more money, spend less, or better yet… do both.

The Baby Boomers are not completely out of the woods, but the next generations (X, Y, Z, etc.) is even worse off because they face the “Double Whammy.” Not only are life expectancies continually increasing but the Social Security safety net is becoming bankrupt. Consider the average life expectancy was roughly 30 years old in 1900 and in developed countries today we stand at about 78 years. Some actuarial tables are peaking out at 120 years now (see also Brutal Reality to Aging Demographics). So when considering Markowitz’s risk exposure #1 (time horizon), it behooves you to calibrate your risk tolerance to match a realistic life expectancy (with some built-in cushion if modern medicine does a better job).

Taming the Wild Beast

Every investor’s risk profile is multi-dimensional and constantly evolving due to changes in Markowitz’s five risk exposures (time horizon, liquidity needs, net income, net worth, and knowledge/attitude).  Risk can be a wild animal difficult to tame, but if you can create a disciplined, systematic investment plan, you too can reach your financial goals without getting bitten by the numerous retirement hazards.

Read the complete Financial Advisor article on Harry Markowitz

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in any security mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. sidoxia  |  April 3, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Great quote about risk: “Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing.” – Warren Buffett

    Reply

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