In our last Investment 101 piece, “The Full-Meal Deal of Diversification,” we described how effective diversification means more than just holding a large number of accounts or securities. It also calls for efficient, low-cost exposure to a variety of capital markets from around the globe. Today, we’ll expand on the benefits of diversification, beginning with its ability to help you better manage investment risks.
Before we even have words to describe it, most of us learn about life’s general risks when we tumble into the coffee table or reach for that pretty cat’s tail. Investment risks aren’t as straightforward. Here, it’s important to know that there are two, broadly different kinds of risks: avoidable, concentrated risks and unavoidable market risks.
Concentrated risks are the ones that wreak targeted havoc on particular stocks, bonds or sectors. Even in a bull market, one company can experience an industrial accident, causing its stock to plummet. A municipality can default on a bond even when the wider economy is thriving. A natural disaster can strike an industry or region while the rest of the world thrives. In the science of investing, concentrated risks are considered avoidable. Bad luck still happens, but you can dramatically minimize its impact on your investments by diversifying your holdings widely and globally, as we described in our last post. When you are well diversified, if some of your holdings are affected by a concentrated risk, you are much better positioned to offset the damage done with plenty of other, unaffected holdings.
If concentrated risks are like bolts of lightning, market risks are encompassing downpours in which everyone gets wet. They are the persistent risks that apply to large swaths of the market. At their highest level, market risks are those you face by investing in capital markets in any way, shape or form. If you stuff your cash in a safety deposit box, it will still be there the next time you visit it. (It may be worth less due to inflation, but that’s a different risk, for discussion on a different day.) Invest in the market and, presto, you’re exposed to market risk.
Hearkening back to our past conversations on group intelligence, the market as a whole knows the differences between avoidable and unavoidable investment risks. Heeding this wisdom guides us in how to manage our own investing with a sensible, evidence-based approach. Managing concentrated risks – If you try to beat the market by chasing particular stocks or sectors, you are exposing yourself to higher concentrated risks that could have been avoided with diversification. As such, you cannot expect to be consistently rewarded with premium returns for taking on concentrated risks. Managing market risks – Every investor faces market risks that cannot be “diversified away.” Those who stay invested when market risks are on the rise can expect to eventually be compensated for their steely resolve with higher returns. But they also face higher odds that results may deviate from expectations, especially in the near-term. That’s why you want to take on as much, but no more market risk than is personally necessary. Diversification becomes a “dial” for reflecting the right volume of market-risk exposure for your individual goals.
Whether we’re talking about concentrated or market risks, diversification plays a key role. Diversification is vital for avoiding concentrated risks. In managing market risks, it helps you adjust your desired risk exposure to reflect your own purposes. It also helps minimize the total risk you must accept as you seek to maximize expected returns.