Determining a client’s risk tolerance is a standard requirement in financial services, both as a matter of best practices, and regulatory minimums. In recent years, though, advisors have increasingly leaned towards doing the minimum required to assess client risk tolerance, due to the frustration that client risk tolerance itself has varied wildly through the bull and bear market cycles of recent years. However, a new study out using FinaMetrica risk tolerance data from before and after the global financial crisis joins a growing body of research suggesting that in reality, client risk tolerance is actually remarkably stable, and that what’s changing through market cycles is not the client’s risk tolerance, but instead risk perceptions. The significant implications of the research are that planners struggling with unstable client investment behaviors around risk – e.g., buying more in bull markets and selling out in market declines – may actually need to focus more on managing risk perceptions, rather than blaming the instability of client risk tolerance.Read More…
The traditional approach to risk tolerance is fairly straightforward – determine how much risk clients can tolerate, and give them a portfolio consistent with that risk tolerance level.
Unfortunately, the problem with this approach is that it can produce a portfolio disconnected from the reality of the client’s goals. Sometimes the portfolio will be more aggressive than it needs to be to achieve the goal. In other situations, a conservative client may end out with a conservative portfolio that will just doom an aggressive goal to failure.
To avoid such mismatches, then, the real key is that risk tolerance should first be applied to the goal itself, and determine whether the goal – and the portfolio necessary to achieve it – is consistent with the client’s risk tolerance. If the “goal risk” is too high, the real solution is not finding a portfolio to achieve the goal, but finding a new goal that isn’t too risky for the client to tolerate in the first place!
Regulators around the world require financial advisors to assess their clients’ risk tolerance to determine if an investment is suitable for them before recommending it. For the obvious reason that taking more risk than one can tolerate will potentially lead to untenable losses. And even if the investment bounces back, an investor who loses more money than he/she can tolerate in the near term may sell in a panic at the market bottom, and miss out on that subsequent recovery.
Yet the reality is that many investors end up owning portfolios that are inconsistent with their risk tolerance, and it’s only in bear markets that they seem to “realize” the problem (which unfortunately leads to problem-selling). Which raises the question: why is it that investors don’t mind owning mis-aligned and overly risky portfolios until the moment of market decline?
The key is to recognize that investors do not always properly perceive the risks of their own investments. And it’s not until the investor’s perceived risk exceeds his/her risk tolerance that there’s a compulsion to make a (potentially ill-timed) investment change.
Yet the fact that investors may dissociate their perceptions of risk from the portfolio’s actual risk also means there’s a danger than the investor will misperceive the portfolio risk and want to sell (or buy more) even if the portfolio is appropriately aligned to his/her risk tolerance. In other words, it’s not enough to just ensure that the investors have portfolios consistent with their risk tolerance (and risk capacity); it’s also necessary to determine whether they’re properly perceiving the amount of risk they’re taking.
And as any experienced advisor has likely noticed, not all investors are equally good at understanding and properly perceiving the risks they’re taking. Some are quite good at perceiving risk and maintaining their composure through market ups and downs. But others have poor “risk composure”, and are highly prone to misperceiving risks (and thus tend to make frequently-ill-timed portfolio changes!).
Which means in the end, it’s necessary to not only assess a client’s risk tolerance, but also to determine their risk composure. Unfortunately, at this point no tools exist to measure risk composure – beyond recognizing that clients whose risk perceptions vary wildly over time will likely experience challenges staying the course in the future. But perhaps it’s time to broaden our understanding – and assessment – of risk composure, as in the end it’s the investor’s ability to maintain their composure that really determines whether they are able to effectively stay the course!
It is a staple of financial advising to measure a client’s risk tolerance; whether out of a mere regulatory requirement to do so, or out of a best practices desire to better understand a client’s comfort level with the investments (and other financial planning advice) being recommended, so process to measure risk tolerance is essential in today’s world.
Yet many financial advisors severely question the value of doing so; as the saying goes, “Clients are risk tolerant in bull markets, and intolerant of risk in bear markets, so is there really that much value to going through the exercise at all?” And a recent academic presentation at the FPA Experience conference added fuel to the fire, showing a remarkably high correlation between the monthly average risk tolerance scores of a well respected measurement tool, and the monthly level of the S&P 500.
Yet a deeper look reveals that while even the best risk tolerance measuring process is not totally immune to the vicissitudes of the market, a client’s true risk tolerance appears to be remarkably stable and doesn’t change much at all in the midst of volatile markets. Instead, what appears to be unstable is not the client’s tolerance for risk, but their perceptions of risk in the first place; in other words, clients may be loading up on stocks in bull markets not because they’re more tolerant of risk, but because they don’t think there is any risk in the first place. In turn, this suggests that ultimately, it may be time for financial planners to more widely adopt quality tools to measure risk tolerance, but simultaneously recognize that managing client (mis-)perceptions of risk is the real challenge that we face.
Most planners have struggled at times to deal with “difficult” clients. Sometimes it’s the client who says he’s really tolerant of risk and wants 30% returns… until the decline comes. Other times it’s the client who refuses to tolerate any risk whatsoever… yet laments the low returns that entails. Accordingly, most planners try to avoid working with clients at the extremes of risk tolerance (or lack thereof). But the truth is, these challenging clients usually do not really have extreme levels of risk (in-)tolerance… instead, the problem is actually with their risk perceptions, and it requires a different solution.
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.
The process of assessing an investor’s risk tolerance is all about determining his/her willingness to take investment risk, and financial capacity to bear risk, and blending it together to match to an appropriate investment portfolio. Most commonly, this is done with a risk tolerance questionnaire that posits a series of questions about time horizon and need for income, and attitudes about risk and market volatility, to calculate a “risk score” and determine the portfolio that goes with it.
The caveat to this one-dimensional approach, however, is that by averaging together risk tolerance and risk capacity scores, the advisor can unwittingly end up in situations where clients with extremely low risk tolerance (or risk capacity) end up with portfolios that are far too risky for their situation. In other words, the low risk tolerance (or capacity) should have acted as a constraint to the investment policy statement, but didn’t.
So what’s the alternative? Simply put – risk tolerance and risk capacity should be measured separately, and then scored on a two-dimensional scale that considers the contributing role (and limiting nature) of each (rather than a single continuum that merely averages the two together).
Fortunately, there are numerous risk tolerance software solutions specifically designed to assess “pure” risk tolerance on a standalone basis, including FinaMetrica and Riskalyze. And for comprehensive financial planners, the reality is that the financial plan itself is a measure of risk capacity, as reflected in the Monte Carlo probabilities of success and failure.
For those who don’t do full retirement planning projections for every client, a recent alternative software solution is Tolerisk, which is designed to perform a two-dimensional risk tolerance assessment by separately gathering information about the client’s risk attitudes and their basic financial goals.
The bottom line, though, is simply to recognize that risk tolerance and risk capacity are two different dimensions of the client’s overall risk profile, and must be assessed and ‘scored’ separately to properly recognize the constraining role that each can have on the appropriate investment policy statement!
The requirement that a financial advisor must “Know Your Client”, including his/her tolerance for taking risks, is a universal requirement amongst investment regulators around the world.
Yet a recent survey of the global landscape for best practices in risk profiling by Canadian financial planning software provider PlanPlus reveals a disturbing lack of quality risk tolerance questionnaires (RTQ) and support tools for financial advisors. In part, this appears to be driven by the fact that regulators articulate the principle of “know your client’s risk tolerance” but provide little guidance on how it should be done to ensure that it’s right. And to a large extent, the problem stems from the reality that neither regulators, academics, nor advisors themselves, even have agreement on exactly what key factors of a client’s “risk profile” should be evaluated in the first place.
Nonetheless, a growing base of academic research is beginning to articulate a clear risk profiling framework, from recognizing the separation of risk tolerance from risk capacity, the role of risk perception (and misperceptions) on client behavior, and how “risk composure” (the stability of a client’s perceptions of risk) itself can vary from one cline to the next. Of course, just because these factors can be identified doesn’t make them easy to measure with a questionnaire, especially when it comes to “subjective” abstract traits like risk tolerance. On the other hand, the research suggests that financial advisors just trying to interview clients about risk may not be doing a better job, either.
In the end, the optimal approach may eventually be a combination of both, where psychometrically designed risk tolerance questionnaires assess a client’s willingness to pursue risky trade-offs, and the financial advisor can then assess the client’s risk capacity, financial goals, and ability to achieve their objectives given the constraint of their tolerance. And ultimately, an effective risk tolerance questionnaire may not only make it easier to properly match investment solutions to a client’s needs, but also make it easier to manage client risk perceptions and investment expectations on an ongoing basis. Or at least identify which clients are most likely to be challenged when the next bear market comes along!
It is a standard requirement in financial services that financial advisors must first determine an investor’s risk tolerance before making any investment recommendations for their portfolio. Yet in the modern era, good financial advisors don’t just invest a portfolio for growth or preservation of principal alone, but to achieve the investor’s goals, and whatever required return (and associated risk) those goals necessitate. Except in practice, doing so is sometimes impossible – because not all investors are able to tolerate the amount of risk they need in order to achieve their goals in the first place!
For financial advisors, this leads to two alternative paths for implementation. The first is to take a more “authoritative” approach, where the financial advisor is literally “the authority” – the expert – whose job is to implement whatever the investor needs to achieve the goal (i.e., to invest them for what they need, regardless of their tolerance), and then bears the responsibility to help their clients stick with the plan and stay the course (i.e., “behaviorally manage”) through the inevitable market downturn. By contrast, the second option is a more “accommodative” approach, where the financial advisor may educate and make suggestions to the investor about why they need (and should be more comfortable with) a greater level of risk, but in the end accommodate however the client wishes to invest (since it’s their money and their decision in the end, even if it’s a path inevitably doomed to failure by generating insufficient returns).
On the other hand, arguably the real problem is not just about deciding whether to be more authoritative or accommodative with respect to an investor’s mismatch between their need for risk and tolerance to take it, but recognizing that their need for risk is so (problematically) high because their goal itself is very demanding and risky in the first place. Which means the best path forward may not be about trying to determine the “optimal” portfolio at all (because there really isn’t one) but is instead about helping clients to adjust their goals such that they don’t need more risk than they can tolerate in the first place. In other words, the advisor doesn’t need to be authoritative or accommodating of the client’s high-risk-need and low tolerance if the goals can be adjusted so the client no longer has that high-risk need after all!
Or stated more simply, in a world where portfolios aren’t just invested for growth or preservation of principal in the abstract, but specifically to achieve certain goals, the first step of the process is not to align the portfolio to the client’s risk tolerance, but to align the goals (and the amount of risk they would necessitate) to the client’s risk tolerance in the first place. Because once goals themselves are aligned to risk tolerance… implementing the optimal portfolio turns out to be remarkably straightforward!
The ongoing decline of defined benefit plans and pensions, and the associated rise of defined contribution plans – in the US and around the globe – is leading to a growing body of research around how best to “de-cumulate” a lump sum of assets after they have been accumulated in the first place.
To address the challenge, a wide range of strategies have emerged, some built around a “safety-first” framework of guaranteeing a base of income (e.g., with annuitization or a pension) and building on top of that, while others have focused on a more “probability-based” portfolio-centric approach that aims to spend down the invested assets while maximizing the probability of success along the way.
Yet the reality is that portfolio-based strategies built around a “conservative enough” safe withdrawal rate effectively are a safety-first approach, while safety-based strategies using annuitization or pensions can still have at least some risk (as evidenced by the history of insurance/annuity company failures, and the growing shortfall of the PBGC in backing failed pensions).
Perhaps instead a better way to recognize the range of retirement income strategies is based on whether retirees trust in insurance and annuity guarantees and choose to transfer the risk, or instead “trust” in markets and the equity risk premium in the long run and choose to retain the risk while seeking appropriate strategies to reduce or avoid the danger of a shortfall along the way!