Dealing with Wobbling Risk Tolerances

March 16, 2010 at 11:40 pm 1 comment

The words “risk tolerance” are often used loosely, but unfortunately many investors and advisors look at these terms as an objectively definable statistic, like your blood pressure or cholesterol level. Not only is risk tolerance not a definable statistic, but for most people it is also constantly changing.

Given that investment advisors themselves have a great deal of difficulty maintaining an even emotional keel, it should come as no surprise that most invidual investors have even more volatile risk appetites. Because of the nature surrounding the markets – 24/7 news coverage and non-stop tick by tick price scorekeeping –emotions continually tug at investors’ risk tolerances.

Average Investor NOT on Best Behavior

Certainly in my practice, I’ve seen the direct psychological (and physical) impacts volatile financial markets can have on people’s investment decisions. What makes deciphering risk tolerance even more difficult is the absence of any substantive profile definitions (except for vague categories like conservative, moderate, and aggressive). The foggy risk categorizations are compounded by the aforementioned fluctuating risk tolerances, which usually switch in the wrong direction, at the wrong time. Case in point: the technology bubble bursting. In the late 1990s, risk aversion completely disappeared – everyone and their mother wanted to invest in technology stocks. If you fast-forward to the mid-2000s, you will also recall Bessie the hair salonist and Jimmy the cab-driver taking excessive risk at the peak of the housing bubble.

In a recent Simoleon Sense post, an astute guest contributor (Tim Richards) points to research developed by Carrie Pan and Meir Statman (Santa Clara University – Department of Finance) showing the shortcomings implicit in investor behavior:

“… investors’ risk tolerance varies by circumstances and associated emotions. High past stock returns endow stocks with positive affect and inflate investors’ exuberance, misleading them into the belief that the future holds high stock returns coupled with low risk. Risk tolerance questions asked after periods of high stock returns are likely to elicit answers exaggerating investors’ risk tolerance. Conversely, low past stock returns burden stocks with negative affect and inflate investors’ fear, misleading them into the belief that the future holds low stock returns coupled with high risk. Risk tolerance questions asked following periods of low stock returns are likely to elicit answers underestimating investors’ risk tolerance.”


In addition to ill-advised investor timing, Richards correctly highlights the lack of comparability across various investor types, even if you apply acceptable definitions or numeric levels of risk. Simple allocation to various stock/bond exposure does not adequately capture a client’s risk tolerance. A portfolio with 60% invested in Blue Chip dividend paying companies is a tad different than a portfolio invested 60% in Russian stocks.  What an 82-year old retiree in Florida thinks is “aggressive” may differ 180 degrees from what a 32-year old trader on Wall Street may think is “aggressive.”

The Failure of Risk Equations

Academics have attempted to boil the market into elegant mathematical equations, but with the acknowledgement that investing mixes science with behavior, it becomes apparent that the mathematical equations must also incorporate art. However, it can become quite difficult to create an ever changing artistic equation. A perfect example of an equation gone awry is the debacle that unfolded at Long Term Capital Management. Robert Merton and Myron Scholes were world renowned Nobel Prize winners who single handedly brought the global financial markets to its knees in 1998 when it lost $500 million in one day and required a $3.6 billion bailout from a consortium of banks (see also why investors get hurt and Butter in Bangladesh articles).

Even if you are a smart economist who can artistically mix quantitative numbers with investing, the problem becomes people’s preferences and decisions change as the infinite number of variables adjust in the marketplace over time. There certainly are some rules of thumb investors tend to gravitate towards (such as cheap companies with sustainable growth in profits and cash flows), but even for those companies successful at generating income, nobody can unequivocally predict exactly how and when investors will react by pushing prices higher.

Here is what Tim Richardshad to add on the subjects of mathematical models and market efficiency in his Simoleon Sense post:

“So, in recent decades the industry’s approach has been to develop mathematical models which can relegate human behaviour to a set of probability equations, thus allowing profitability and risk to be actuarially managed: fraud is no longer unacceptable – it’s now just a number to be factored into earnings forecasts. This is simply the latest in a long line of industry fads, using the ideas of efficient market theories to design approaches which are right quite a lot of the time and then very, very wrong all at once.”



“[Markets] are not remotely efficient and it’s just a shame the world had to be brought to the edge of financial meltdown before anyone started listening.”



“When everyone thinks that markets can’t fail is the time to be very risk adverse, when no-one wants to invest is the time to be greedy. Yet what’s an advisor to do when the know-your-customer questionnaire tells them to do exactly the opposite of what’s in the customer’s best interests?”


Equations can produce detrimental results, so a healthy dosage of skepticism is prescribed.

The Solution: Education, Liquidity, and Income Can Allow More Beauty Sleep

Education about logic pitfalls and the integration of liquidity-based needs into clients’ investment plans is key. Controlling and understanding one’s personal biases can reduce or eliminate common repeated investment mistakes. Covering the investors’ income needs is another essential and practical aspect to investing, especially when it can prevent forced position sales at inopportune times. Extending oneself along the riskier end of the spectrum may have felt comfortable in the mid 2000s, but losses and sleepless nights overwhelmed many investors in 2008 and early 2009. In a bull market, adding too much equity and other risky assets to a portfolio is like pimping heroine to a drug addict – it behooves the advisor to point out the potential dangers of positioning a portfolio too aggressively. Rebalancing your investment portfolio can also act as a natural hedge to prevent exposures from exploding in size or evapaporating away. On the other hand, pitching Armageddon and piling into overpriced risk-free assets during the tail end of a bear market can be just as negligent.

Risk tolerance is an amorphous concept that can lead to suboptimal, knee-jerk investment actions. If you want to earn higher returns, I strongly urge you to pick up a behavioral finance book to sharpen your investment decision-making skills and firm up your wobbling risk tolerance foundation.

Read the whole Simoleon Sense article.

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.

Entry filed under: Education, Financial Planning. Tags: , , , , .

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