A Key to Great Investing: Understanding Risk
Maybe it's the way we're wired, but most people are terrible at assessing risk. We put our money in "safe" investments and get clobbered and avoid "risky" investments that double and triple. Here are a few ways improving risk can hurt:
1) Avoiding the stock market altogether.
Conventional wisdom says the stock market is a dangerous place where you're sure to lose a fortune or a casino where you have no control over results. Conventional wisdom could not be more wrong. Look at the history of the market since its inception, and you'll see some wild rides. What you'll also see are long-term results that beat almost anything else you can find. Good luck trying to make some people believe this, though. They know what they know; do not confuse them with the facts.
While the gyrations of the stock market make its short-term risks easy to see, the risks of bank accounts and bonds are hidden. Every month, you see some interest on your bank balance-though small – and the principal is always there. What you do not see is a greedy monster called inflation, typically gobbling up the purchasing power of your funds. If you hold bonds to maturity, the same thing often happens. Get your principal and interest back, but lose to inflation. And if you do not hold to maturity, your "safe" bond investment may be anything but. Who wants to buy your bond yielding 1% if interest rates jump to 4%?
2) Investing only in large cap stocks.
Giant companies have a place in every portfolio. They throw off wonderful dividends that keep money coming in even when the market is tanking. Their strength helps you sleep at night. But buy them when they're overpriced, and you'll have to collect a lot of dividends to get your money back. Moreover, they'll fail to return as much as the average small or midcap portfolio.
Risk assessment is a tricky thing with smaller cap stocks. Look at one microcap stock, and the risk is awful. Look at a diversified bunch, and the risk shrinks dramatically. Some of your microcaps might go bankrupt (although you can minimize that risk by taking a good look at debt, cash flow, and earnings), but the ones that do well will often go through the roof and leave your overall performance looking quite impressive.
3) Thinking stocks are more dangerous when they're actually safer.
Most people assume they should stay away when the market drops 20%. After all, it might drop a lot more. By focusing on potential short-term pain, they ignore the fact that a good company's stock at 20% off is usually safer than one at full price-especially if it's the stock of an all-weather company that will sail through the next recession.
If you think you're immune from this, ask yourself how you feel about buying a house. Chances are you're a lot more nervous than you were a few years ago, even though there's only a small chance that houses will perform as terribly in the coming years as they have for the last few.
4) Thinking stocks are a great buy when they're actually a huge rip-off.
Remember those people who thought the stock market was a big casino or a sure way to lose money? Wait till the next market boom. Suddenly, they'll think the market is a great place to invest. They'll fill your ear full of stock tips-most of them bad. Avoid this by looking at numbers instead of listening to cheerleaders. As the average P / E ratio of the stock market climbs higher, stocks become more dangerous in spite of claims that it's different this time. That does not mean there are not any bargains, but you will not find them by listening to hot tips.
5) Thinking anything is a sure thing.
Every aspect of investing is fraud with risk. Hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and accounting shenanigans can torpedo a stock in spite of your best efforts. That's why every portfolio needs more than one stock, and every portfolio need to be invested in more than one sector. Be wary of throwing money at everything in equal amounts, though. This is a guarantee of mediocre results. Instead, calculate the size of each investment based on your estimate of potential returns, but with a healthy respect for the threat of the unexpected.
6) Thinking past performance is a guarantee of future results.
A stock that had an extra year is not necessarily going to have another. The same goes for fund managers.
Even the long-term inflation-beating performance of the whole market is not guaranteed, although it's a pretty good bet. That's why you always need to keep some funds in cash and alternative investments.
Risk assessment is not an intuitive skill. If you rely on sloppy thinking or feelings, you'll almost certainly get it wrong. Take the time to learn how risk works and to know as much as you can about each of your companies. The rewards will be worth it.