What you probably already know about risk
Even though you might never have thought about the subject, you’re probably already familiar with many kinds of risk from life experiences. For example, it makes sense that a scandal or lawsuit that involves a particular company will likely cause a drop in the price of that company’s stock, at least temporarily. If one car company hits a home run with a new model, that might be bad news for competing automakers. In contrast, an overall economic slowdown and stock market decline might hurt most companies and their stock prices, not just in one industry.
However, there are many different types of risk to be aware of. Volatility is a good place to begin as we examine the elements of risk in more detail.
What makes volatility risky?
Suppose that you had invested $10,000 in each of two mutual funds 20 years ago, and that both funds produced average annual returns of 10 percent. Imagine further that one of these hypothetical funds, Steady Freddy, returned exactly 10 percent every single year. The annual return of the second fund, Jekyll & Hyde, alternated — 5 percent one year, 15 percent the next, 5 percent again in the third year, and so on. What would these two investments be worth at the end of the 20 years?
It seems obvious that if the average annual returns of two investments are identical, their final values will be, too. But this is a case where intuition is wrong. If you plot the 20-year investment returns in this example on a graph, you’ll see that Steady Freddy’s final value is over $2,000 more than that from the variable returns of Jekyll & Hyde. The shortfall gets much worse if you widen the annual variations (e.g., plus-or-minus 15 percent, instead of plus-or-minus 5 percent). This example illustrates one of the effects of investment price volatility: Short-term fluctuations in returns are a drag on long-term growth. (Note: This is a hypothetical example and does not reflect the performance of any specific investment. This example assumes the reinvestment of all earnings and does not consider taxes or transaction costs.)
Although past performance is no guarantee of future results, historically the negative effect of short-term price fluctuations has been reduced by holding investments over longer periods. But counting on a longer holding period means that some additional planning is called for. You should not invest funds that will soon be needed into a volatile investment. Otherwise, you might be forced to sell the investment to raise cash at a time when the investment is at a loss.
Reducing risk through diversification
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You can potentially help offset the risk of any one investment by spreading your money among several asset classes. Diversification strategies take advantage of the fact that forces in the markets do not normally influence all types or classes of investment assets at the same time or in the same way (though there are often short-term exceptions). Swings in overall portfolio return can potentially be moderated by diversifying your investments among assets that are not highly correlated — i.e., assets whose values may behave very differently from one another. In a slowing economy, for example, stock prices might be going down or sideways, but if interest rates are falling at the same time, the price of bonds likely would rise. Diversification cannot guarantee a profit or ensure against a potential loss, but it can help you manage the level and types of risk you face.
In addition to diversifying among asset classes, you can diversify within an asset class. For example, the stocks of large, well-established companies may behave somewhat differently than stocks of small companies that are growing rapidly but that also may be more volatile. A bond investor can diversify among Treasury securities, more risky corporate securities, and municipal bonds, to name a few. Diversifying within an asset class helps reduce the impact on your portfolio of any one particular type of stock, bond, or mutual fund.
Note: Before investing in a mutual fund, carefully consider its investment objectives, risks, fees and expenses, which can be found in the prospectus available from the fund; read it and consider it carefully before investing.
Mark Kutzke is a financial advisor located at 959 34th Ave NW, Rochester, MN 55901. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 507-281-6650 or at email@example.com.