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Identifying Investment Risk And Coping With It

Are you a risk-taker? To realize rewards, you usually have to take some risks, especially when it comes to finances. But beyond understanding that investment risk and reward go hand in hand, it’s important to know how they relate. What is the nature of risk, and how can you handle the different kinds of risk that could affect the performance of your investments?

What is the nature of risk? For many investors, risk is associated with the inherent volatility of the equities markets. You run the risk that your investments will perform worse this year than last year or worse than you anticipated or worse than the markets as a whole.

Risk means you have something to lose—the money you’ve put into a particular investment or the money you might have made if you had made different choices. You also could run the risk of throwing good money after bad, of buying more of something when the price is low only to see the value fall further.

Although risk and reward are related, there’s no direct, predictable connection between the two. You could decide to take fewer risks and still lose money, or you might ratchet up your investment risk without cashing in on higher returns. Nevertheless, it’s important to try to keep risk and reward in a balance that fits your situation.

What are the main types of risks? Financial experts often debate this question, but the pros generally agree that two significant risks facing investors are inflation and emotion.

1. Inflation risk. Essentially, this is the risk that money you earn will lose some of its purchasing power over time. For example, if you buy a five-year certificate of deposit (CD) from a reputable bank, there’s relatively little risk that the bank won’t live up to the terms of the CD. But there’s a much bigger risk that the dollars you receive in five years won’t buy as much as they would now.

If you’re old enough to have experienced the 1980s, you might recall the days when money market funds paid interest at double-digit percentage rates. However, with double-digit inflation occurring at the same time, most savers barely stayed even.

Inflation risk can present problems to all investors, and especially to retirees. Someone who left work in 1978 might have felt pretty comfortable with a pension paying $40,000 a year. But that $40,000 was worth only about $12,200 in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This represents a loss of almost three-quarters of the money’s buying power.

One way to protect against inflation risk is to include an appropriate ratio of stocks and stock funds in your portfolio. Or, if you’re more conservative, you might consider inflation-protection bonds. History has shown, however, that holding even a modest equity stake may increase returns without undue risk when compared to a pure fixed-income portfolio.

2. Emotional risk. It’s easy to let emotions rule decision-making. Almost everyone is subject to bouts of fear and greed, and investors have an innate tendency to be overconfident about their ability to choose winning positions. But simply doing what feels right—or avoiding what feels wrong—can lead to adverse results.

Consider an investor who sits on the sidelines during a bull market, nervous about following the crowd—a tendency that indeed can be counterproductive. But finally the investor gets tired of losing out and jumps in, buying at the top of the market and without carefully considering the fundamentals of particular investments. Others get into trouble when the market is falling and they sell solid holdings in a panic, losing out on the chance to benefit when they rebound.

The best protection against emotion is to have a carefully considered investment plan and to try to stick with it even when markets are highly volatile. Having a balance of bond funds for stability and income and stocks for growth can help smooth out inevitable market bumps.

How do you manage risk? Everybody has a different risk tolerance. A good approach for managing yours is to stick to investment fundamentals. That may be as simple as refocusing on the key principles of diversification and asset allocation.

Diversification spreads your investments over a broad mix of asset classes, an approach that has the potential to reduce risk. Asset allocation is the process of assigning percentages to those asset classes based on your particular needs and risk tolerance, and then rebalancing your holdings regularly to keep them close to their assigned allotments.

There’s no way to avoid risk completely, but you still can generate earnings while staying within your comfort zone. We’re here to provide guidance.