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How to Measure Your Tolerance for Risk

While you can’t control what the markets will do next, you can get a handle on how much risk you’re comfortable taking with your investments. Discussing these three questions with your financial advisor can help

How to Measure Your Tolerance for Risk image

IF YOU’VE EVER WONDERED how you’d deal with a challenging market, the first few months of 2020 likely put that to the test. Between February and March, stocks plunged nearly 34%, shaking many investors’ faith in their investment strategy and financial futures.

“Markets can change very quickly and unexpectedly, and we cannot control that,” says Niladri Mukherjee, head of CIO Portfolio Strategy, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. “What we can control is how we manage risk.”

The key is understanding your comfort with risk before a crisis hits, so you’re less tempted to pull out of the market when volatility strikes and miss out on potential gains when it recovers.

The following questions can help guide you in understanding how much risk you can tolerate—and afford—in any market.

How much risk can you take on and still sleep at night?

The dramatic drop in stock prices triggered by the coronavirus in early 2020 and the economic shutdown that followed can provide a useful gauge in determining how much you’re comfortable keeping in riskier assets like stocks versus less risky investments, like high-quality bonds and cash.

“Markets can change very quickly and unexpectedly, and we cannot control that. What we can control is how we manage risk”

—Niladri Mukherjee, head of CIO Portfolio Strategy, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.

“The goal is to understand how much risk you can truly withstand and still sleep at night,” says Mukherjee. That’s your “risk tolerance.”

You’ll also want to determine how much risk you can afford to take with your investments without jeopardizing your goals. This is known as your “risk capacity” and considers things like your income and overall financial resources, along with how much time you have for reaching your goals.

For example, an investor who is within a few years of retirement might avoid putting a large percentage of her net worth into high-risk investments, because the time frame for when she’ll need to access them is shorter than someone with several decades until retirement.  Your financial advisor can work with you to help you get a solid grasp of both your tolerance and capacity for risk.

By sticking within your comfort zone, you’ll be less tempted to abandon the markets when they get volatile—a decision that could hurt your investment returns over time.

As the graphic below illustrates, an investor who pulled out of the stock market during the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and re-invested just one year later would have missed the initial market rebound—significantly reducing their potential returns over the next decade. And someone who exited the stock market and moved their investments into cash would have risked not realizing any returns in the following years.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This is for illustrative purpose only and not indicative of any investment. An investment cannot be made directly in an index © Morningstar. All Rights Reserved.

Another useful strategy, especially if you’re young or new to investing, can be to make a commitment to invest a certain amount on a pre-determined basis—known as dollar-cost averaging. “It can help reduce the urge to try to time the market,” notes Mukherjee, “or make knee-jerk reactions when markets get turbulent.” Keep in mind that dollar cost averaging cannot guarantee a profit or prevent a loss. And because an investment plan of this nature involves continually investing in securities regardless of fluctuating price levels, you should consider whether you’d be willing to continue purchasing during periods of high or low prices.

What’s the time frame for your various goals?

It’s often helpful to think about the amount of time you have to reach each of your goals, as that will help inform the investment choices you make.  Funds to cover unexpected expenses like large home repairs or medical bills or to weather a layoff should be in cash or a highly liquid, low-risk investment such as short-term bonds. For near-term goals that are five or so years away, such as a home down payment, you might opt for conservative investments that typically aren’t as volatile as stocks.  

When it comes to long-term goals like retirement, however, being too conservative increases the risk that your portfolio might not grow at a pace that keeps up with inflation. Since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, inflation has been low—less than 2% a year. But even a 2% annualized inflation rate means that what costs you $100 today will cost nearly $150 in 20 years, and the purchasing power of your current savings will fall accordingly.

Planning around the corrosive effect of inflation is especially important for your retirement security, given that a non-smoker who reaches age 65 in average health has a 50% probability of still being alive into their mid-80s, and living into one’s 90s is no longer that uncommon.1 So if you have a way to go before retirement, you could consider a larger allocation to equities that offer greater potential for growth for your longer-term goals, Mukherjee suggests.

“An investing strategy that is grounded in your life priorities, goals and time horizon and takes your liquidity needs and risk tolerance into account is the best way to help stay on track and determine if you are making progress.”

—Niladri Mukherjee, head of CIO Portfolio Strategy, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.

You could also consider alternative investments such as private equity and hedge funds, if appropriate for your situation. They are often riskier—and less liquid than stocks—but may offer the possibility of higher returns.  Your advisor can help determine if these types of investments are appropriate for your circumstances.

Are there any special situations that might affect your ability to take risk?

The stability of your income might affect how much risk you can take with your investments. Similarly, if you own your own business or have a lot of equity in your employer’s company, you may want to take less risk with your outside investments as a result.

Also take into account significant life changes, such as marriage, divorce, birth of children (and grandchildren), a job loss or new job. “Your risk tolerance is dynamic,” says Mukherjee. “If building more near-term security is a priority, you may want to increase your lower-risk investments for a period, which may entail scaling back riskier assets for longer-term goals, such as saving for future college costs.”

Working through all those moving pieces, with guidance from your financial advisor, can help you build an over-arching allocation of different types of stocks and bonds, periodically rebalanced to ensure that it doesn’t stray too far from your predetermined allocation—and level of risk. “An investing strategy that is grounded in your life priorities, goals and time horizon and takes your liquidity needs and risk tolerance into account is the best way to help stay on track and determine if you are making progress,” says Mukherjee.


A private wealth advisor can help you get started.

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