The traditional approach to evaluating risk tolerance – which has been enshrined into our standard regulatory process for determining the “suitability” of a recommendation – involves gauging a client’s attitudes about risk, their financial capabilities to take risk (e.g., time horizon, need for income, and availability of other assets), and mixing them together into a composite score that can be assigned to a portfolio. A strong attitude and financial ability to take risk gets a high score and an aggressive portfolio, a poor attitude for risk and significant portfolio needs result in a conservative portfolio, and a mixture of the result leads to a moderate growth portfolio in the middle.
Yet the fundamental problem with this traditional approach is that it confuses someone’s capacity to take risk with their actual need or desire to do so. The end result is that wealthy clients who don’t want or need risk end out being given moderate growth portfolios anyway, young clients who have a long time horizon but no desire for risk end out with equity-centric portfolios that may scar them for life, and clients who have unrealistic spending goals end out with impossibly conservative portfolios doomed to fail.
The solution to this challenge is a fundamental change to how we view risk tolerance and financial risk capacity in the first place. The optimal portfolio solution is not a combination of risk tolerance and risk capacity; it’s the portfolio that can best achieve the client’s goals, constrained by risk tolerance to ensure that neither the portfolio, nor the goal, exceeds the client’s tolerance in the first place. In other words, it’s absolutely crucial to separate out our evaluation of whether someone needs risk, whether they can afford risk, and whether they want to take risk, so that the ultimate portfolio recommendation can properly align all three.