The Nature of Risk

The risk of an investment is described by both the probability and the potential amount of loss. The risk of an investment—the probability of an adverse outcome—is partly inherent in its very nature. A dollar spent on biotechnology research is a riskier investment than a dollar used to purchase utility equipment. The former has both a greater probability of loss and a greater percentage of the investment at stake. In the financial markets, however, the connection between a marketable security and the underlying business is not as clearcut. For investors in a marketable security the gain or loss associated with the various outcomes is not totally inherent in the underlying business; it also depends on the price paid, which is established by the marketplace. The view that risk is dependent on both the nature of investments and on their market price is very different from that described by beta.

While security analysts attempt to determine with precision the risk and return of investments, events alone accomplish that. For most investments the amount of profit earned can be known only after maturity or sale. Only for the safest of investments is return knowable at the time of purchase: a one-year 6% T-bill returns 6% at the end of one year. For riskier investments the outcome must be known before the return can be calculated. If you buy one hundred shares of Chrysler Corporation, for example, your return depends almost entirely on the price at which it is trading when you sell. Only then can the return be calculated.

Unlike return, however, risk, is no more quantifiable at the end of an investment than it was at its beginning. Risk simply cannot be described by a single number. Intuitively we understand that risk varies from investment to investment: a government bond is not as risky as the stock of a high-technology company. But investments do not provide information about their risks the way food packages provide nutritional data.

Rather, risk is a perception in each investor’s mind that results from analysis of the probability and amount of potential loss from an investment. If an exploratory oil well proves to be a dry hole, it is called risky. If a bond defaults or a stock plunges in price, they are called risky. But if the well is a gusher, the bond matures on schedule, and the stock rallies strongly, can we say they weren’t risky when the investment was made? Not at all. The point is, in most cases no more is known about the risk of an investment after it is concluded than was known when it was made.

There are only a few things investors can do to counteract risk: diversify adequately, hedge when appropriate, and invest with a margin of safety. It is precisely because we do not and cannot know all the risks of an investment that we strive to invest at a discount. The bargain element helps to provide a cushion for when things go wrong.

Many market participants believe that investment risk is intrinsic to specific securities, as it is to activities like hang gliding and mountain climbing. Using modern financial theory, academics and many market professionals have attempted to quantify this risk with a single statistical measure, beta. Beta. Compares a security’s or portfolio’s historical price fluctuations with those of the market as a whole. High-beta stocks are defined as those that tend to rise by a higher percentage than the average stock in a rising market and decline more than the average stock in a falling market. Due to their greater volatility, high-beta stocks are deemed to be riskier than low-beta stocks.

It's somewhat ridiculous that a single number reflecting past price fluctuations could be thought to completely describe the risk in a security. Beta views risk solely form the perspective of market prices, failing to take into consideration specific business fundamentals or economic developments. The price level is also ignored, as if IBM selling at $50 per share would not be a lower-risk investment than the same IBM at $100 per share. Beta fails to allow for the influence that investors themselves can exert on the riskiness of their holdings through such efforts as proxy contests, shareholder resolutions, communications with management, or the ultimate purchase of sufficient stock to gain corporate control and with it direct access to underlying value. Beta also assumes that the upside potential and downside risk of any investment are essentially equal, being simply a function of that investment’s volatility compared with that of the market as a whole. This too is inconsistent with the world as we know it. The reality is that past security volatility does not reliably predict future investment performance (or even future volatility) and therefore is a poor measure of risk.

In addition to the probability of permanent loss attached to an investment, there is also the possibility of interim price fluctuations that are unrelated to underlying value. (Beta fails to distinguish between the two.) Many investors consider price fluctuations to be a significant risk: if the price goes down, the investment is seen as risky regardless of the fundamentals. But are temporary price fluctuations really a risk? Not in the way that permanent value impairments are and then only for certain investors in specific situations.

It is, of course, not always easy for investors to distinguish temporary price volatility, related to the short-term forces of supply and demand, from price movements related to business fundamentals. The reality may only become apparent after the fact. While investors should obviously try to avoid overpaying for investments or buying into businesses that subsequently decline in value due to deteriorating results, it is not possible to avoid random short-term market volatility. Indeed, investors should expect prices to fluctuate and should not invest in securities if they cannot tolerate some volatility.

If you are buying sound value at a discount, do short-term price fluctuations matter? In the long run they do not matter much; value will ultimately be reflected in the price of a security. Indeed, ironically, the long-term investment implication of price fluctuations is in the opposite direction from the near-term market impact. For example, short-term price declines actually enhance the returns of long-term investors. There are, however, several eventualities in which near-term price fluctuations do matter to investors. Security holders who need to sell in a hurry are at the mercy of market prices. The trick of successful investors is to sell when they want to, not when they have to. Investors who may need to sell should not own marketable securities other than U.S. Treasury bills.

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