Looking at Risk Tolerance after the February 2018 Market Plunge–7 Tips to Lower Blood Pressure

After last week’s stock market drop, it’s fair to say that a few panicked emails landed in the in-boxes of financial planners and finance professionals. The writers of these emails may not have realized that their tolerance for risk was not what they thought it was, lulled by a multiyear bull market or an inadequate planning session with their advisors. For professional advisors, a more realistic determination of how much risk an investor can tolerate before a downturn can lighten their inboxes if the market dives and perhaps even prevent a few client defections.

“During stable moments in the market, you might say: I can tolerate X amount of risk,” says GGU Adjunct Professor of Behavioral Finance Richard H. Lehman. “They think they knew their tolerance for risk and then all of a sudden they are confronted with a 5 or 10 percent decline, and it is not always easy for them. They don’t know if there is another 10 percent drop coming or what’s next. Recency bias – a tendency for people to assume things will continue as they are – makes the drops even more shocking.”

A process for determining risk-tolerance that works a lot better than simplistic client surveys is needed. Says Lehman: “The advisor needs to be able to assess their clients psychologically in a way that clients cannot effectively do themselves. You cannot just ask people directly about their risk tolerance because it is a concept most people cannot articulate well.”

The Problem & Challenge

Advisory practices have by and large failed to take advantage of what academia now knows about financial behavior and the psychology of financial decision-making. The basic role of the advisor is to help tailor a financial plan and strategy for each client. The implicit assumption is that to do that, they need to fully understand the client’s risk tolerance, goals, and objectives — which is essentially their legal requirement as fiduciaries.

“The advisor needs to be able to assess their clients psychologically in a way that clients cannot effectively do themselves. You cannot just ask people directly about their risk tolerance, as it is a concept most people cannot articulate well.”

Lehman knows first-hand how challenging it has been to get the financial industry to embrace behavioral concepts. When he was at the NYSE more than 30 years ago, he managed a major study of investors that showed how psychographics are integral to the investing process. Like proper capitalists, however, Wall Street denizens couldn’t see much further than how much money their clients had to invest. The NYSE study told another story, though the results were way ahead of the industry’s thinking.

The challenge to make change happen brought him to roles as an author, teacher, blogger, and conference organizer. In 2013, he teamed up with a technical analysis and behavioral finance legend, GGU’s Hank Pruden, to create the Behavioral Finance Symposium. At the time, it was a new discipline with few courses available and almost no industry-targeted events. The Symposium, a first-of-its-kind, has been successfully held at GGU every year since.

How do you determine the real risk tolerance of an investing client?

How can Behavior Finance help clients (and their advisors) better understand their own risk comfort so that blood pressures don’t spike when the market goes down? Here are some of Lehman’s insights on risk tolerance that are part of his Behavioral Finance course at GGU’s San Francisco campus.

Differentiate risk, volatility, ambiguity, and loss.

Richard Lehman

People have misconceptions about the concepts of risk, volatility, loss, and ambiguity, frequently assuming they are all the same. They don’t fully understand risk (the potential for negative returns) versus volatility (the dynamics of up-and-down movement) and loss (the actualization of a negative return). Ambiguity is the sense of how much uncertainty one can deal with in terms of future returns.

Prospect Theory teaches us that when we evaluate the probability something is going to happen, we do it in biased ways. For example, consider the probability of a major earthquake in the Bay Area. It is so small on a daily basis that most people think it is essentially zero–but it is a finite number. On the other extreme, people overestimate the probabilities of winning the lottery, where the chances are infinitesimal–but people are willing to bet that it’s greater. Prospect theory also tells us that losing X amount of money feels roughly twice as bad as the pleasure of gaining the same amount of money. Understanding such ideas leads to much more realistic assessments of risk and reward.

Don’t sugar coat risk.

Even bonds can blow up, and people need to understand that. They also need to understand that occasionally companies do go bankrupt. It is better to understand and plan for risk than to be blindsided by it later.

Consider scenarios.

Investors need to appreciate all possible scenarios and plan ahead for how they might deal with them. For example, before the recent decline, people should have already had an idea what they might do in the event of a 10% decline.

Lehman knows first-hand how challenging it has been to get the financial industry to embrace behavioral concepts. When he was at the NYSE more than 30 years ago, he managed a major study of investors that showed even then how psychographics are integral to the investing process.

Examine trade-offs.

Investment choices produce numerous trade-offs between risk and return. Examining alternatives works well as a way of developing a portfolio that one is comfortable with. For example, you can construct model portfolios with various different asset classes and easily backtest them to see how they performed in historical periods.

Recognize downsides as well as upsides.

Clients will tend to focus on upside potential more than downside risk. It is important to change the focus to risk-reward or risk-adjusted return so that both are given proper emphasis.

Understand reference points.

A fundamental tenet of Prospect Theory, which informs much of Behavioral Finance, is that when we evaluate possible outcomes, we do it differently because we each have different reference points. When you are young, a $10K loss has much more impact than to a 50 or 60-year-old. Also, people who experienced a big negative impact from the financial events of 2008 are more sensitive to current risk than people who are older and who have seen several downturns. There are studies that indicate differing risk attitudes in different countries as well. Some Asian cultures, for example, will characteristically tolerate more or less financial risk than US investors. Investors in China, for example, exhibit a greater tendency to speculate; while Japanese investors are more risk-averse.

Consider Interactive games for assessing risk

A standout from the 2017 Behavioral Finance Symposium was Dr. Shachar Kariv, a well-known UC Berkeley Economics Professor and experimental researcher. He argues that interactive methods of assessing one’s risk tolerance represent a substantial improvement over classic risk surveys. Dr. Kariv shows that a simple computer game can reveal clients’ attitudes about risk much more scientifically than simply asking what they think they are. A company called TrueProfile is already using Dr. Kariv’s ideas in its profiling service.

More to be done

Lehman has made progress as an educator and continues to work at connecting industry with academia on the subject of Behavioral Finance. In recent years, more Nobel Prize winners in Economics (such as Yale’s Robert Shiller and University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler) are providing more visibility and acceptance of Behavioral Economics. However, Lehman says: “Human nature is very hard to change, and that will continue to challenge both investors and the financial industry for a very long time.”


About Richard Lehman

Richard Lehman has more than 30 years of experience in the financial industry, including eleven years on Wall Street with EF Hutton and the New York Stock Exchange. He later worked for financial data giant Thomson Reuters, startup Avenue Technologies, and the Wealth Management group at Mechanics Bank. Lehman has authored three financial books published through Bloomberg/Wiley and has been teaching Behavioral Finance and Options courses for three years at Golden Gate University. He is also the founder of the website BehavioralFinance.com and the San Francisco Behavioral Finance Symposium.

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