by Michael Lebowitz, 720 Global

Cause when life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door” – Grateful Dead

On numerous occasions, we have posited that equity investors appear to be blinded by consistently rising stock prices and the allure of minimal risks as portrayed by record low volatility. It is quite possible these investors are falling for what behavioral scientists diagnose as “recency bias”. This condition, in which one believes that the future will be similar to the past, distorts rational perspective. If an investor believes that tomorrow will be like yesterday, a prolonged market rally actually leads to a perception of lower risk which is then reinforced over time. In reality, risk rises with rapidly rising prices and valuations. When investors’ judgement becomes clouded by recent events, instead of becoming more cautious, they actually become more aggressive in their risk-taking.

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In our premier issue of The Unseen, 720Global’s premium subscription service, we quantified how much riskier financial assets are than most investors suspect. The message in, The Fat Tail Wagging the Dog, is that extreme historical price changes occur with more frequency than a normal distribution predicts. Reliance upon faulty theories laced with flawed assumptions can lead investors to take substantial risks despite paltry expected returns.

In this article, we further expand on those concepts and present a simple framework to help readers understand the spectrum of risks that equity holders are currently taking.

Risk Spectrum

When one assesses risk and return, the most important question to ask is “Do my expectations for a return on this investment properly compensate me for the risk of loss?” For many of the best investors, the main concern is not the potential return but the probability and size of a loss.  A key factor to consider when calculating risk and return is the historical reference period. For example, if one is to estimate the risk of severe thunderstorms occurring in July in New York City, they are best served looking at many years of summer meteorological data for New York City as their reference period. Data from the last few weeks or months would provide a vastly different estimate. Likewise, if one is looking at the past few months of market activity to gauge the potential draw down risk of the stock market, they would end up with a different result than had they used data which included 2008 and 2009.

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