## A Hidden Measure of Investment Risk, Beyond Volatility

### Quiz!

Which is a riskier situation?

1. 1M invested in a stable investment that grows by 5% per year and never declines.
2. 3M invested in a highly volatile investment that grows by an average of 8% per year and suffers significant frequent declines of up to 60% from the peak.

### A Hidden Measure of Investment Risk, Beyond Volatility

This article debunks a conventional wisdom that equates volatility with risk, and ignores all other factors. The following example demonstrates a problem with this narrow focus. Compare the following two situations:

1. 1M invested in a stable investment that grows by 5% per year and never declines.
2. 3M invested in a highly volatile investment that grows by an average of 8% per year and suffers significant frequent declines of up to 60% from the peak.

By focusing on volatility alone, you would conclude that the first investment is less risky. This conclusion is wrong. The lowest balance that the stable investment can reach is 1M, since it never declines. The lowest balance that the volatile investment can reach is 1.2M, since it starts with 3M and can go down by up to 60% of the peak. The first investment is riskier for two reasons: (1) it grows more slowly on average, and (2) it has a lower worst-case balance. Your risk of running out of money with this investment is greater.

Since the starting investment amounts are different in the two cases, how can this apply to the real world? An example could help:

1. Say you have 1M invested in a stable investment.
2. The investments grow to 1.1M through a combination of investment growth and new savings. This allows you to shift your investments towards higher expected growth along with higher volatility. Specifically, the investments can potentially decline by another 100k (10%) during declines, to get you to the prior risk during declines.
3. You repeat the step above, leading to higher and higher expected growth, while keeping the risk level the same.
4. Your investments reach 2.5M, and you reached an allocation for maximum potential growth, along with potential declines of up to 60%. Your risk level is still the same with the lowest balance being: 2.5M x (1 – 60%) = 1M.
5. Your investments reach 3M, and you keep the allocation the same, since you already enjoy the maximum potential growth. But now the lowest your investments can reach is up to 3M x (1 – 60%) = 1.2M, giving you higher security, despite the much higher volatility.

Notes:

1. Risk is determined by spending/investments, not investments alone. To account for expenses going up or down, you should track spending/investments, not just the investment balance.
2. Another risk factor is the valuations (P/B = Price/Book, or price relative to intrinsic value or liquidation value). In diversified portfolios, high valuations lead to higher risk (greater potential decline), and lower valuations lead to lower risk (lower potential decline).
3. Some stable investments are exposed to inflation risk, making them riskier than seems.  On the other hand, there is no guaranteed maximum decline for any investment.  It is all a matter of odds.
4. If higher volatility leads you to panic and sell low, that is another risk factor that can take away the financial benefits described above.
5. While income from work can be lost at any point, some jobs are much more secure than typical (e.g. doctors), and can help your risk profile.

Implications:

1. A plan that may be risky for someone else, may be conservative for you (and vice-versa), depending on your respective ratios of expenses/investments & valuations.
2. A plan that would have been risky for you a few years ago, may be conservative for you today (and the reverse is potentially true if your expenses grow faster than your investments).

Which is a riskier situation?

1. 1M invested in a stable investment that grows by 5% per year and never declines. [Correct Answer]
2. 3M invested in a highly volatile investment that grows by an average of 8% per year and suffers significant frequent declines of up to 60% from the peak.

Explanation: See article for explanations.

Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

## Quiz!

If you add annually to a portfolio that drops 50% in one year and recovers the next year, what penalty or benefit do you get when compared to a portfolio with the same returns (0%) and no volatility?

1. -50%
2. No impact.
3. +50%

## How to Use Volatility to Make Money

Investment volatility is the investment’s movements up and down away from its average growth. It is commonly viewed as a negative, but for a disciplined long-term saver, it is typically a positive. A hypothetical example can demonstrate it. Let’s compare 2 portfolios with identical returns, and different volatility:

 Portfolio 1 Portfolio 2 Year 1 0% -50% Year 2 0% 100% Average 0% 0%

If you start with \$100, both portfolios will be worth \$100 after 2 years. Specifically, Portfolio 2 will go through the following values: (Year 1) \$100 – 50% = \$50. (Year 2) \$50 + 100% = \$100. The portfolios have identical average growth, but Portfolio 2 is far more volatile.

Let’s see the final balance if you add \$100 in the beginning of each year:

 Portfolio 1 Portfolio 2 Year 1 (\$100 + 0%) = \$100 (\$100 – 50%) = \$50 Year 2 (\$100 + \$100) + 0% = \$200 (\$50 + \$100) + 100% = \$300

Even though both portfolios have the same average growth, when adding to both portfolios identical amounts each year, the more volatile portfolio ended up 50% higher (\$300 vs. \$200).

How is this possible? The percentage going back up is greater than the original percentage going down. When a portfolio recovers from a 50% decline it goes up 100%. This is because the percentage going up is relative to a lower starting amount. While old money simply recovers, new money that was invested low goes up \$100 – double the -\$50 impact of the decline.

Notes:

1. Some investors lose faith in their portfolio after declines, and hold off on investing (or even sell). If you do that, you can negate the entire benefit of volatility and even hurt your returns.
2. Even with discipline, there is a special case that can lead to a negative effect. The case involves no up period after a down period, for example, only up years followed by only down years. This is not a concern for disciplined lifelong investors, because such a sequence is limited to one cycle or less.

If you add annually to a portfolio that drops 50% in one year and recovers the next year, what penalty or benefit do you get when compared to a portfolio with the same returns (0%) and no volatility?

1. -50%
2. No impact.

Explanation: See this month’s article for an analysis of this scenario.

Disclosures Including Backtested Performance Data

## Quiz!

If the longest possible decline (peak-to-peak) for ET (Extended-Term Component) were 12 years (a hypothetical assumption, which was chosen as a punitive example given current conditions), and you were to invest money in ET today, what would be the longest possible decline for this investment?

1. Less than 3 years
2. 3 years
3. 12 years
4. More than 12 years

Look for the answer below and read this month’s article for a discussion.

## Volatility is not the best Measure of Investment Risk

Volatility is the most common measure of investment risk.  There are a number of reasons:

1. Some investors panic and sell at a low point.  Selling a high-growth high-volatility investment at a low point can negate the entire benefit of the high average growth.
2. Some investors build concentrated portfolios, where volatility involves the risk of a loss that extends beyond a market cycle.
3. When the horizon of the entire investment is shorter than a cycle of a volatile investment, volatility can lead to a permanent loss if it is fully sold at a lower point in the cycle.

What if you are a disciplined investor, saving for retirement (or being in retirement, with limited annual withdrawals), and are able to stick with your plan throughout the cycle?  In such a case, seeking low volatility at the price of lower average returns, can lead to higher overall risk, given the risk of outliving your money – the opposite of what is intended.  If you are going to stick with your plan throughout the cycle, a higher-growth diversified investment is less likely to leave you bankrupt as a result of regular retirement withdrawals.

Another factor is the position in the cycle.  While it is impossible to identify the precise peaks and bottoms of the cycle, there are certain factors that are not typical for peaks:

1. Valuations are lower than usual.  The beginning of the worst declines tend to occur at very high valuations, not low.
2. The investments are in the midst of a deep and long decline.  For example, if the recent peak was 9 years ago, and you are at a 28% decline, your risk level is much lower today.  And, to continue the example, if the total decline is 12 years long, you get a 39% gain in the remaining 3 years.